Apple Car or Apple Street View?

February 13th, 2015 § 0 comments § permalink

An Apple rumor tornado tour through the tech press a couple weeks ago when a camera laden minivan spotted driving around Silicon Valley was determined to be registered in the company’s name. This tornado sucked up all kinds of stupid ideas one of which was the theory that Apple was secretly designing its own electric car to compete with Tesla. The Internet loves to assume that Apple is going to jump into totally unfamiliar product categories and I assumed that the much more tame, if boring, explanation was that Apple is actually trying to collect their own Street View data; it’s one area where their Maps App remains woefully inadequate in comparison to Google’s.

Fast forward two weeks and the Wall Street Journal is claiming that Apple is indeed working on an electric car and when it comes to the Journal and Apple leaks it’s a good idea to listen.

Apple has several hundred employees working secretly toward creating an Apple-branded electric vehicle, according to people familiar with the matter. They said the project, code-named “Titan,” has an initial design of a vehicle that resembles a minivan, one of these people said.

Couple this with the news that Apple has hired the former president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz Research & Development, Johann Jungwirth, and these crazy ideas are starting to sound a little less crazy.

(via Jordan Kahn at 9to5Mac)

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Customer vs. Commodity and your grandmother’s underwear

June 27th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Most of the major internet companies have been releasing statements playing down their involvement in the NSA Prism scandal that broke couple weeks ago. For their part I think these companies would like nothing more than to not be involved with the NSA but since warrants are involved they don’t really have much choice. This has lead to some non-denial denials saying that they have not given the NSA unfettered access to their servers. If the scale of access ranges from zero to complete we are left hoping it was closer to zero but we will probably never know.

The problem, in my opinion, is not how much access these companies gave to the NSA. The problem is the fact that they store the data in the first place. Companies that make their money from advertisers (Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, basically any company that provides “free” web services) have no choice because the more personal data they have about their users the more they can charge advertisers. Their users are the commodity and advertisers are the customer. Contrast this with a company who’s users are also their customers and you have a very refreshing statement about the NSA’s spying program.

An excerpt Apple’s commitment to customer privacy:

For example, conversations which take place over iMessage and FaceTime are protected by end-to-end encryption so no one but the sender and receiver can see or read them. Apple cannot decrypt that data. Similarly, we do not store data related to customers’ location, Map searches or Siri requests in any identifiable form.

Apple is not doing this because they are morally superior to the Googles of the world. They are not doing it because of some mealymouthed corporate tagline about not doing “evil”. They are doing it because it’s in the best interest of their customers just as Google is storing massive amounts of personal data in the interest of their customers.

Marco Arment had a great analogy for how he treats a customer’s personal data. He was talking about accessing a user’s contact book from Instapaper and he compared it to his grandmother’s underwear drawer. To paraphrase Marco

Imagine your grandmother is in the hospital and she needs you to get an important document from her house. The only problem is that it’s stored in her underwear drawer. You are, of course, going to do what your grandmother asks but you are going to do it as quickly as possible. Open the drawer remove the document and, if possible, leave the rest of the contents untouched.

He made this comment in the wake of the Path address book controversy but I think it should be an attitude shared by all developers. Apple doesn’t store your iMessages because they don’t want the liability. Google reads your jabber messages so they can get a better sense of who you are and what ads you are more likely to click on. To abuse the analogy they would be happy to catalog your grandmother’s underwear drawer for you. BTW, she might like this special offer from JC Penney’s.

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Why Nobody Can Copy Apple

February 28th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

Harace Dediu recently wondered why Apple’s competitors are not moving quickly to mimic the vertical integration that has served them so well over the past decade1. For the first two decades of the PC revolution Microsoft was largely successful because they let OEM’s fight over who could build the cheapest hardware while they collected Windows licensing fees from all of them. Economists call this commoditization and while it steadily drove the price of computers down it doesn’t always produce the best devices. By controlling both the hardware and software Apple has been able to produce products that are more stable and have a higher degree of polish. Clearly it has worked out well for them.

While it would certainly be a big undertaking for Microsoft or Google to take full control of their hardware it’s not a task that requires the company to pivot away from its core focus. In the 80’s IBM had to pivot away from building computers and start focusing on software to save itself from obsolescence. Instead Google and Microsoft can continue to make software while a new division starts to make hardware2. The Nexus and Surface product lines show that these companies are capable of making hardware just not very committed to it.

Charlie Kindel posits that this has more to do with Apple’s focus on the consumer than anything else.

In my experience, the behaviors and culture of an organization (large or small) that focuses on the Consumer as a customer is diametrically incompatible with the behaviors and culture of an organization that focuses on Business as a customer.

I feel strongly that this is a key reason Microsoft’s products are often good, but not excellent; the consumer ones and the business ones. This is why Google will never be able to beat Apple at Apple’s game: Google’s customer focus is split between the advertiser and consumer.

  1. Meaning that they not only build the software but they also design and build the hardware that uses their software. []
  2. One could even argue that doing so will make software developers lives a little easier as they will be able to spend less time worrying about the myriad of hardware configurations that plague the Windows & Android ecosystems. []
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nexus 7 customer service number – Google Search

July 11th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

For posterity

I realize that the Nexus 7 is not yet available but I find it quite humorous that performing a search for “nexus 7 customer service number” turns up my blog post as the first result. Humorous for me, not so much for the people trying to receive some customer service. If anyone can dig up the right phone number for me I’ll post it on my site.

Update

well that didn’t last long. Now I’m down to #6.

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Nexus 7: A customer service disaster in the making

July 3rd, 2012 § 7 comments § permalink

The first thing I noticed about the Nexus 7 was the big ASUS logo on the back. While most people were talking about the $200 price tag and the fact that it appears to be far beyond barely adequate the first thing I thought was “good luck to the poor souls that need to contact customer service”. It’s a testament to Apple that living in their ecosystem can cause one’s lemon hardware detector to atrophy. Not only do they make reliable hardware but when there is a problem you simply bring it into an Apple store. Worst case scenario you have to leave it with them for a day or two.

Having straddled the Apple and Microsoft world for the past ten years my lemon detector is, unfortunately, still in working condition and it’s making my eyes water whenever I look at that big ASUS logo on the back of the Nexus 7. I hope I’m wrong too. I really want the Nexus 7 to be a great device. I think there is a market for 7 inch tablets and I’d like to see someone finally make a device worthy of testing that market. The two companies producing this device leave me dubious however.

Google is a company notorious for their aversion to customer service. The only product page that gives customers a phone number to call is Google Adwords. Their Nexus One launch was plagued by customer service complaints and to my knowledge that have not shown any willingness to change their tune. Nerds hate dealing with customers (see: RTFM & LMGTFY) and Google, for better or worse, is a company run by nerds.

Perhaps not the greatest place for a Nexus 7 Ad

ASUS, on the other hand, is merely notorious for providing  terrible customer service. This leaves me to wonder who is going to handle customer support. Whether it’s Google or ASUS the picture looks pretty bleak.

What follows is a rather long, hopefully entertaining and ultimately cathartic story about my anecdotal experience with ASUS customer service. It’s the reason I will never again recommend someone buy anything more complicated than a monitor from them.

A tale of two fans

I bought an ASUS G71G laptop back in 2009 and it was hands down the most miserable computer I’ve ever owned. I didn’t travel a lot but when I did I wanted to be able to take everything with me and not sacrifice too much screen real estate. So a 17″ behemoth with 1TB of hard capacity a quad core CPU and a NVIDIA GeForce 9800M for high resolution (and gaming) was perfect. I had been a big fan of ASUS motherboards back when I built computers from scratch and at $2,099.99 the price was too good to pass up. It turned out to be too good to be true as well.

For the first six months I raved about how much I loved the computer. That’s when things started to go south. It started with a seemingly innocuous problem. The speakers stopped working. I have both a need to fix things myself and a healthy distrust of customer service so I did what any self respecting nerd would do; I tried to fix it myself. I narrowed it down to a software issue by turning on the tacky bios explosion noise it would make at boot up. I tried many different drivers and dozens of Google searches before finally giving in and calling ASUS.

Well, at least I tried to call them. After searching for a phone number for quite some time the best I could come up with was someone who barely spoke English and didn’t even seem to handle customer service. So I filed a support ticket explaining the problem and the steps I had take to fix it. That was on Dec 3rd, 2009. Two months later on Feb 9th, 2010 they responded with this

Dear Valued Customer,

Thank you for contacting ASUS Customer Service.

Would you please have a check whether the setting in your control panel is right. [sic]

Please click ‘start’,then ‘control’, and choose ‘sounds and audio devices’.

My response:

Wow, after two months I finally get a response of “check your control panel” which is so vague as to be useless and something I have done many times at this point. Nothing changed, the speakers simply stopped working. I have updated, rolled back, changed drivers. I have tried a multitude of things in windows and nothing works.

Please please please give me something more than some stupid “check your control panel” response. At this rate I’m never going to buy another ASUS product again.

Worst customer service ever.

Nearly one month later on March 3rd they responded with this gem

Dear Valued Customer,

Thank you for contacting ASUS Customer Service.

Please upgrade the BIOS from this link: link

Then recover your OS.

There are two ways to make restore function work:

[redacted for brevity]

The restore function would delete all the files in fist partition. Please backup all the data you need firstly.

As any developers knows getting your machine configured properly is a painful and time consumer processes on any OS. In Windows is even worse. So I responded as such:

Is this a joke??? Your first solution, after waiting for exactly 3 months is reinstall my ENTIRE OS?!?!?!?! This is quite possibly the worst customer service I have ever received. If i take my car to the shop because of a strange noise I don’t expect them to recommend an engine rebuild.

I want a REASONABLE solution to my problem!!!

Three weeks later1 on March 19th, 2010 they said

Dear Valued Customer,

Thank you for contacting ASUS Customer Service.

Sorry, if you don’t try to do so [sic], would you please send your laptop in and let our engineer do a detailed check for you? Sorry for the inconvenience. Please fill-out the online form to request a RMA/Purchase order.

[redacted for brevity]

All this to fix some speakers which I didn’t really need. At this point my faith in their abilities left me certain that I would need to either remove the hard drives or wipe them before sending the computer back. For me this rendered the entire process pointless. In the 4 month interim I had dragged my ass to Fry’s and bought some Logitech speakers and fixed the problem myself. Inelegant to be sure but at least it worked so I comforted myself with the fact that I would no longer have to deal with them. Of course shortly after that the real problem started. My computer started shutting down all on its own.

At first it was very rare, once a month perhaps and only during CPU intensive procedures. I was writing a very complex XML import tool that would peg my CPU while I tried to work out performance kinks. Having once built a computer that required a floor fan to be properly cooled I knew exactly what the problem was. The CPU was overheating.

Gradually this problem crept into other areas of usage. After playing Team Fortress 2 for a couple hours or running a very CPU intensive process for 30 minutes. Eventually it got so bad that I couldn’t really use the computer for much of anything without it shutting down so in June of 20102 I purchased a laptop stand with a giant fan inside of it. This Thermaltake notebook cooler extended the life of the laptop another 6 months so I guess it was $50 well spent (+tax & shipping) but the laptop is now basically unusable.

The last time I used it was to backup my iPhone 4 and restore the backup to my iPhone 4S. To do this I had to resort to my old floor fan technique which was a bit more difficult this time as I had to balance the laptop on the 20 inch high velocity fan while it blew air straight up. Needless to say I welcomed iCloud backup more than most.

By this point I no longer worked from home so I’m proud to say that Windows has not been run in my house all year. Instead we are making due with the pre-unibody Macbook Pro I bought my wife in 2007. I had to install a new hard drive and I don’t dare put Lion on it but for anything the iPad can’t do the laptop handles just fine.

  1. at this rate it will only take four more emails to get same week service! []
  2. gotta love NewEgg order history []
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ADmented Reality – Google Glasses Remixed with Google Ads

April 6th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

If you haven’t watched the concept video Google made for “Project Glass” then do so now. It’s a nice idea1 but the first thing I thought was “where are the ads?” Thanks to YouTube we can now see what it would like with ads.

  1. In my opinion the idea is worth 10% and the execution 90% so concept videos are pretty pointless in my book. They get to gloss over all the usability and manufacturing problems and the final product will almost inevitably be a pale imitation. []
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Why Kodak failed while Fujifilm has thrived

January 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

There is a great article on The Economist contrasting the seemingly imminent death of Kodak with Fujifilm’s successful reboot. After 137 years of innovation and a long stretch where they enjoyed a near-monopoly in America’s consumer film market Kodak appears to be preparing for a1 has just filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy that few expect them to emerge from. Given the advent of digital cameras I doubt many people are surprised but I think it’s interesting that the Japanese equivalent, Fujifilm, has been able to successfully pivot away from a dying industry.

As the article points out this wasn’t some radical change that caught Kodak flat footed, rather it was a gradual and inevitable market shift that both firms saw coming. In 1979 a Kodak executive penned a report that did an amazingly accurate job of predicting the next 30 years in consumer photography.

It was also certainly not for want of trying. They built one of the first digital cameras in 1975 and tried to mine their deep knowledge of photo chemicals for alternative uses in the drug market. Many were impressed by the venture-capital arm they created as well. Ultimately, however, they were not aggressive enough and they moved too slowly. While Kodak dithered Fujifilm was able to shed its dead weight while it successfully leveraged it’s expertise into new consumer markets like cosmetics and establish a new monopoly in the LCD market by producing screens with wide viewing angles.

Surprisingly, Kodak acted like a stereotypical change-resistant Japanese firm, while Fujifilm acted like a flexible American one.2

In 50-100 years which stalwart companies will find themselves in the same predicament? Will Google fail to move away from search when AI’s are able to mine information better than humans? Will Apple find itself locked out of the emerging wetware computer market that moves computing from our hands into our heads? How will Toyota differentiate itself in Minority Report type world were nobody owns their own car and instead rely upon a nearly identical fleet of driver-less vehicles?

Obviously these scenarios are closer to science fiction than to business planning but I find the mental exercise intriguing.

  1. Looks like the filed for bankruptcy while I was writing this []
  2. From the aforementioned Economist article []
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Apple vs. Google : The Flawed Gaming Console Comparison

April 28th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

The 80’s Desktop Wars are not the only historical models people are using to predict how the iOS vs. Android battle will play out. In an attempt to show that market share can change dramatically despite an overwhelming lead people point to the gaming console wars of the past 3 decades. Atari started out with a dominating lead only to be usurped by Nintendo’s NES console in 1985. They held this lead, despite heavy competition from Sega, until 1995 when Sony released their first Playstation. More targeted at 18-25 market it quickly supplanted Nintendo as the major player in the console market. Sony held this lead with their Playstation 2 but lost out to the Wii and XBox 360 as Nintendo and Microsoft brought new innovations to user interface (WiiMote) and gaming communities (XBox Live). As the 5 year gaming console life cycle grows to a close it’s anybody’s guess who will come out on top in the next round1. I find this to be a more compelling comparison to the current battle between Apple and Google than the Apple vs. Microsoft one but I think it has some serious flaws.

There can be only one

If you look at the behavior of the consumers of gaming consoles as compared to the consumers of smartphones there are some key differences. A smartphone user will almost universally choose one product over another. With rare exception do people carry around multiple cell phones and I would guess that when they do one of them is a feature phone2. For people who buy consoles the decision is not as absolute but rather a preference for one platform over another. If you purchase an XBox today there is no reason that you couldn’t purchase a Wii later. Switching between the two is just an input button away.

Consoles are not “sticky”

As Horace Dediu posits in his How sticky is Android? article the stickiness of a platform really comes down to the software. As I pointed out yesterday it was this very issue that helped Windows maintain a huge lead over Mac OS in the 90’s. If you want to switch sticky platforms you have to give up all the money you invested in software. For gaming consoles, however, this does not hold true. When someone upgrades from one console generation to the next they are all but expecting to lose their software investment. Sure there are some consoles that are backwards compatible but that does little more than free up a display input on your TV. If you really want to play those old games you can leave your old console hooked up and it costs you nothing. Even these people are the outliers though because when someone does decide to make the leap into the next generation they are doing so because they want to play new and improved games. They aren’t just expecting to lose their investment, they want to.

This is simply not the case for platforms such as smartphones and desktop operating systems. People might get bored of games and be willing to lose that investment but it’s the productivity apps that are going to have a big influence over whether someone switches platforms. I would argue that this gives iOS the upper hand because of their superior apps and the fact that their customers have invested more heavily in them but that is besides the point. The Android Marketplace could improve and Android customers could start buying Apps.

Profitability

If there is one area of this historical model that HTC, Motorola and Google should  be paying attention to it’s that of profitability. Despite being unable to catch up to the Playstation 1 & 2 or the XBox Nintendo maintained their profitability throughout. Through tighter control and a more hands on approach to making games they have not only survived but thrived. Had they not so done I’m sure they would have ended up producing crumby games for their competitors consoles such was the fate of Atari & Sega. Instead they took that money and went back to the drawing board for the Wii. They abandoned the classic console battle of producing better graphics opting for a better user experience and an insanely low priced product instead. Proving once again that innovation and profitably trump market share any time.

  1. My guess is that Nintendo and Microsoft will continue to mop up market share as the hardware driven ethos of Sony fails to bring innovations that consumers really want. Ok, your graphics are better, that’s great, but I would rather play a fun game over a beautiful one []
  2. These are old school Nokia type phones that despite their name only have a few features like calling, texting and being hard to use. []
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Apple vs. Google : This isn’t the 80’s

April 27th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

Update: This story by Jean-Louis Gassée does a great job of showing how Apple’s “Failure” in the 80’s was a result of decisions and circumstances that simply aren’t true today.

You know the battle is heating up when average consumers start staking their claim in their respective territories of a platform battle. Both my mom and my mother-in-law have opinions about whether the iPhone is better than the “Droid”. Having no real idea what it actually meant one of them championed the “openness” of Android. I’m guessing that for most people ideas about the relative merits of one mobile OS1 over another begin at their local wireless carrier store. You know, the bastion of well informed, unbiased and intelligent salesman waiting to educate the public about this incredibly important issue. AKA: A bunch of 22-year-old morons who spent 5 minutes on the internet and really really really want to make a sale. Would you like GPS navigation with that smartphone?

Unfortunately it’s that 5 minutes of Googling that seems to be shaping much of the debate around the issue. Unable to form new and complex models talking heads trot out tired historical models and try to squeeze Apple and Google into the roles of former combatants. So uninspired are they that they can’t even find a model with different actors so Apple fills the role of Apple while Microsoft is played by Google and it’s Mac OS vs. Windows all over again. And clearly Windows (aka Android) is going to win because .. well, uh, Apple is closed and expensive!

To my mind the desktop battle of yore was “won” in two parts. First off, Microsoft didn’t want to sell hardware; they wanted to license their OS. This allowed them to step above the cut throat competition of making cheap hardware and focus on making their software work with as many hardware combinations as possible. Perhaps it didn’t work so well but it worked. Apple, in a desire to control their product from a soup to nuts perspective, opted to build their own hardware which allowed them to spend less time worrying about various hardware combinations and more time focusing on their OS and user experience. The end result was that you could buy a Mac with a superior OS or spend half as much and get a Windows computer that got the job done.

So far the model seems to fit the iPhone vs. Android comparison. Only Apple makes iPhones and they cost more than many of the myriad of Android phones. I’m biased but I also believe iOS also offers better overall user experience for this premium. The flaw in this, however, is the scale on which we are talking about. When you are talking about spending $1500 vs. $3000 that Mac OS premium is hard to justify. But if you are talking about $50 vs. $100, or even $50 vs. $200, consumers are far more willing to overlook the price difference. They may even see that price difference as a rational for upgrading to an iPhone. Then if we really want to get serious we can look at the tablet market where it doesn’t appear anyone can beat Apple’s iPad prices2.

The second phase of the desktop OS battle was about software. As Microsoft’s dominance grew software manufactures started to focus more and more on the OS that would earn them the most money. Why spend as much money developing a Mac OS version of your software when it was going to generate 1/10 the return. This meant that even if a user wanted to switch to a Mac because they were sick of Windows they would not only have to repurchase all their software, but it might not all be available. Fast forward to the late 90’s and Microsoft has >90% of the desktop market and Apple is on the brink of bankruptcy. So does this mean game over for the iPhone? Is it’s death inevitable? Hardly. There are two key differences here.

  1. The Apple App Store is widely considered to have both more, and higher quality apps than Google Marketplace3. This may not always be the case but Apple clearly has a huge lead here.
  2. iOS users are more willing to pay for apps making it a more lucrative target for developers.

iPhone vs. Android If anything Apple is in the shoes of Microsoft here as anyone who already has an iPhone would have to make significant monetary sacrifice to switch to an Android device. All that money they spent on high quality apps would be down the drain and replaced by mostly free, but ad supported and lower quality Android apps. If there is even an Android equivalent for their favorite app. Android users, on the other hand, have invested very little in terms of software into their phones. Since most of their apps are free and they give up very little in switching to iPhone and gain in availability and quality of apps.4

Then of course there is the fact that the past decade was a very different story as first the iPod and now the iPhone has ushered in a new generation of Mac users making Apple the most profitable computer manufacturer in the world5. Yes, you read that right. In fact they are the only computer manufacturer that actually grew their computer sales last quarter in a year-over-year comparison. So perhaps the Apple vs. Microsoft model will work out in the long run. We’ll have to check back on the Desktop OS war in 5 years and see how Microsoft is doing.

Of course the elephant in the room on this issue seems to be profitability. Most of Apple’s detractors seem to have a blind spot for their +$300B market cap and the fact that despite the fact that they represent 25% of smartphone sales they hold over 50% of the profit. Now one could argue that profit is not a guarantee that a product will succeed but with margins that big and $60B in the bank Apple can afford to play hardball if they want to. At this point they could start a 3-month iPhone give away6 if they valued market share over profitability and it would be but a hiccup in their earnings report.

  1. Operating System []
  2. This Tablet Comparison Chart has the classic tech review pitfall in that it compares raw specs but it’s still an interesting chart. []
  3. As John Gruber points out, Where Are the Android Killer Apps? []
  4. Horace Dediu has a brilliant theory relating Android’s lack of high quality/paid apps as a reason that it’s not a “sticky” OS. How sticky is Android? []
  5. http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1632414 []
  6. with a 2-year contract of course []
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