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ATPM 18.05
May 2012





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by Mark Tennent,

What Trick, What Device, What Starting-Hole…

Last week saw us in the garden of the cottage we had rented on a farm in Suisse Normande. The weather was an unseasonable 28°C and the air full of the sights and sounds of a working cattle farm. To Philippe the farmer, the malodorous scent of his Limousins was money in the bank. To us, the be-horned girls in the field looked threatening and highly frisky. One in particular took off at an incredible speed if I stopped to look at her. But then, I was wearing a calf skin jacket.

For the first time on holiday, we both had iPhones and Pads with us. My 4S was easily able to pick up a signal and surf the Web, but neither of my partner’s 3GS or Samsung Galaxy Tab could connect. Thus, my phone become the personal hotspot, and I paid the (now much lower) data roaming charge for us all.

Crossing borders in Europe can still mean that, on one side, data is part of your package, while across the invisible line it is charged for at an enormous price. Luckily, the European Parliament has decreed that this rip-off will end, and costs are sinking titanically.

Looking at our multi-function devices and how small and powerful they are, we would never have guessed what our 1980s cameras, music players, mobile phones, and personal computers were going to evolve into.

At that time, a mobile phone was barely that, some units needing a shoulder strap for the battery pack or having to be fitted into a car. The smallest still weighed about the same as a brick. Sony was the world leader in mobile music, with their Walkman series of cassette and CD players. Portable computers of the 1980s were the size of a briefcase, or incredibly expensive and the stuff of NASA and the military.

Apple showed the way with the Macintosh Portable in 1989. When it was released, Apple was working on the Newton MessagePad, followed by the first PowerBook. In each case, and like their operating systems, Apple’s designs have defined the form that others emulate. After that first PowerBook, the shape of a laptop computer has changed little, which must be the only time Apple made a device that was considerably cheaper and more advanced than its competitors. Before the iPhone, most cellphones were clunkers and definitely not smart.

Apple’s first device to beat all others into submission was the iPod. Instead of walking around with a selection of your music collection, you could have the entire library in your pocket. Then came the iTunes Store. The rest, as we know, is history.

But where next? The cellphone is pretty much defined. I don’t want a smaller one because of the screen size, and the same for an iPad for the opposite reasons. iPods too are tiny, and it would be too difficult to watch movies if their screens were any smaller. Currently there is little Apple can do to improve on the existing hardware range except to make them faster with better screens and larger memories.

This is where Apple is ahead of the competition. Instead of trying to evolve the iPad into a new form factor, Apple is concentrating on the operating system and applications. There are manufacturers around the world who may improve on Apple’s basic hardware design. If they do, Apple can incorporate new ideas into its products; but in the meantime, the competition has only nascent levels of an integrated suite of applications and online stores to sell through.

If a cheaper Pad comes out, Apple has the scope to cut the price of the iPad 2 to compete, without hemorrhaging iPad 3 sales. When the iPhone 5 arrives, Apple will probably keep the 4S and even the 3GS as possible price points to compete with other manufacturers. As Apple’s products are already made abroad, it is unlikely that their competition will be on price alone.

In a recent interview, Samsung’s vice president for design, Lee Minhyouk, admitted that he was trying to find “the next big thing” and that he admired Apple. Admired so much, perhaps, that he emulated their designs, too. When I saw the prototypes for what became Galaxy phones and Tabs, they appeared to be all but slavish copies, as many courts have agreed since then.

In the meantime, it’s fun waiting for that next big thing to come along.

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Reader Comments (1)

Jacques Daviault · June 19, 2012 - 11:49 EST #1
I'm going to miss reading your column Mark.



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