Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
I, Cringely - The Survival of the Nerdiest with Robert X. Cringely
Search I,Cringely:

The Pulpit
The Pulpit

<< [ End Game ]   |  The Big Picture  |   [ Repeal Denied ] >>

Weekly Column

The Big Picture: Apple's methodical moves show it takes time to change the world.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (87)
By Robert X. Cringely

Up or down? That's what this week's Macworld show came down to for most news organizations. Would the new Apple products make the company's shares go up or down? They went down. Macworld was a bust, we were told repeatedly, as if it really mattered. I don't own Apple stock so I couldn't care less whether it goes up or down, nor could most customers. Apple was supposed to introduce another iPod or iPhone, or iSomething that would sell four million or 10 million copies in the next 200 days, driving share prices higher. But it didn't happen. Apple introduced some cool stuff, but nothing that would sell four million units this year, hence the letdown.


A bunch of day traders that used to making a quick 10 percent on their money during Macworld week didn't make that 10 percent this year, so they were disappointed. A bunch of reporters eager to write about those day traders making their 10 percent were disappointed, too. Meanwhile, the rest of us who don't care about day traders were left without much perspective on what any of these announcements actually mean. So I'll do the heavy lifting here and gratefully get back to something non-Apple next week.

First let's look at the MacBook Air, which is a cool product with a bad name, though I guess it worked well for Michael Jordan, so what the heck. It is very doubtful that Apple will sell a million Airs in the next year. It is doubtful Apple will sell even half a million Airs and Steve Jobs knows this. What's important here is not the subnotebook computer but the bits of it that will likely make their way into much more interesting Apple products to come.

Take that specially packaged Intel CPU, how did that come about? Steve Jobs didn't beat the heck out of Intel CEO Paul Otellini to get a little CPU that would go into fewer than half a million boxes. Steve did what he always does. He beat the heck out of Paul Otellini with the promise that this little CPU -- for which we can expect Apple will hold some exclusive for the next six months -- will end up in millions and millions of Apple products, nearly all of them costing a lot less than a MacBook Air.

Apple is very important to Intel. Though nobody says it out loud, Apple is the last of the major computer companies that uses 100 percent Intel processors. And Apple's ability to do more with less has to be a continual inspiration to its competitors. As Apple slides further and further into the consumer electronics and networking markets, Intel will be right there, too. I still expect we'll see an Apple tablet this year, for example, and it will use this same Intel CPU.

How about that new trackpad with the multi-touch interface? Could that be the first look at that mouse replacement I predicted would be coming from Apple this year? Maybe. You can be sure we'll see a lot more of that baby.

What about the Air's lack of an optical drive? It's hard to find a place for an optical drive in such a thin computer, but isn't Steve Jobs the guy who when he returned to Apple railed against notebooks without removable media, like the PowerBook 100 and 2400 and the various PowerBook Duos? Why did Steve change his mind now? Because Steve wants to replace optical drives of any sort with bits provided over the network, preferably from iTunes. That's also why we didn't see an Apple Blu-ray announcement this week and -- if Jobs has his way -- we'll never see one.

Let's turn now to the second-generation Apple TV and the question I seem to be the only one asking: why did they drop the price to $229? Had they dropped the price to $99 I'd say, "Okay, they've decided to lose money on this thing to grow the rental market." But why $229? Did some focus group tell Apple there was price resistance to the Apple TV above $230? It's a set-top box! People don't want to pay anything for a set-top box and if they do pay something they sure don't want to pay $299 OR $229.

The entire Apple TV category is a minefield for Steve Jobs. It's a tiny Macintosh, remember, though with its innate Macness carefully hidden. Steve COULD HAVE blown the doors off Macworld if he had simply allowed the Apple TV to BE a Mac, albeit limited to HDMI displays. If you could buy a Mac that attaches to your HDTV for web surfing as well as all the other Apple TV functions, even at the original $299 price, it would have been a HUGE hit. But it might also have hurt Mac Mini and iMac sales, so Steve couldn't bring himself to do it.

In the long run I think the whole Apple TV product category will be subsumed into the television, itself. Here, too, is another minefield because people replace their computers a lot more often than they replace their televisions, so Apple going into the TV business (like Dell and HP have) might help sales at first but later hurt. The more likely move for Apple, therefore, is to eventually create the Apple TV Nano, which is an Apple TV built into a CableCard. This is technically feasible right now and 18 months from now it will be a no-brainer. The big HDTV vendors would jump on that one like crazy since it would drive CableCard-equipped HDTV sales, which have been less than stellar.

Apple's movie rental service offers a lot to talk about, too, though the part I find most interesting is simply the likely impact on broadband ISPs. It's not just Apple, but also Amazon, Netflix, and others that will drive this impact, though those competing efforts are accelerating right now because of Apple.

The broadband ISPs are already jostling for advantage, talking about limiting throughput and making people pay $30 for the bandwidth to download an HD movie. They simply don't want to pay for the additional backbone capacity required to support this level of traffic. But the even bigger reason why the ISPs are moving right now is they perceive a perfect storm that will allow them to RAISE PRICES. Whether we are talking about a cable company or a phone company, these ISPs make more profit from selling broadband than they do from selling their original service, whether it is phone or TV. Cable prices keep going up, true, but nearly all of that goes for increasing costs for content. Internet content costs an ISP nothing, but that doesn't mean they won't try to charge us more if they can.

What's crazy about this is that most of the HD content we're getting upset about is static. It is perfectly reasonable to put every movie ever made on a server and put just such a server in every cable company or DSL machine room and never have to touch the Internet backbone for that content, which is exactly what I've explained the big ISPs are already starting to do through IP multicast. But now they'll want to be paid for it. The dark horse here is Google, which has spent a couple years positioning itself to offer to handle this service on behalf of ISPs and consumers alike in exchange for us watching some commercials. If it is up to consumers, Google will succeed.

And Steve Jobs knows this, because with their interlocking boards, Apple and Google have to know precisely what the other is up to.

So Macworld was just another step in a very measured plan to establish global media dominance for Apple and probably for Google, too. But it's a plan that requires patience, which the press can't -- or doesn't want to -- understand. So it is up to us as individuals to decide whether this is good or bad. I'd say the jury is still out on that one.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (87)

Re Jon & a smooth touch keyboard a la iPhone:

Look up the company Fingerworks which was mysteriously bought several years ago, most reports say by Apple. They produced exactly what you're asking for, at about the same price.

Even better, the keyboard recognized a *huge* variety of gestures, and the completely smooth surface on which the key outlines were laid also doubled as the mouse track pad. They had some brilliant processing in it that figured out immediately whether you were dragging your fingers for a mouse move or typing, so accidental input errors were almost non existent.

The gestures on the iPhone and MBA just scratch the surface of what it could do. They had 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-finger gestures, rotationals, splaying fingers quickly or drawing them together, vertical & horizontal moves, etc. The mappings were very intuitive also, to all the usual features of scrolling, highlighting, copying, pasting, zooming, rotating, closing windows, etc. Very efficient.

I got to try one out and was very impressed. Also, the surface didn't have that friction-drag or the need to press on it like a regular mouse pad has. So it was much easier to do the gestures than on a higher friction trackpad. Your fingers just glided over it. You could even actually use it with your finger hovering off by a miniscule amount. Yet still no accidental inputs. You could rest your hands on it when not doing anything and it would correctly generate no input.

Very programmable, with all the key and gestures available to be remapped. Last I heard before they were bought, they were making a drop in replacement for the keyboards in Mac laptops. It's sorry to see it essentially get squashed, and Apple only allowing a fraction of its potential to make it out. If Apple doesn't want to release it mainstream, which is understandable, at least they could release it as an accessory or license it and let someone else take the risk. Fingerworks was starting to get a good reputation.

Petnalon | Jan 26, 2008 | 1:49PM

The MacBook Air is one of the most useful products that Apple has released in years for the laptop-lover crowd. The last times I have used my DVD drive on my PowerBook have been when grabbing a friend's CD and importing it to iTunes. As Bob mentions, that competes directly with the iTunes Store so Apple wants to discourage that. Not having a replaceable battery is truly a bummer but there's always an external battery pack which is more or less the same weight as the extra battery you were going to carry anyway. Not compromising on the screen size was also a good decision, since it's a real pain to work with multiple windows when you don't have enough space.

It's good that Apple went back to designing great computers. Unless the MBA suffers from quality issues, it will at least add more luster to the Apple name within corporations.

Tomas Sancio | Jan 27, 2008 | 7:35AM

Hi, Bob.
Instead of smaller in the future, why not bigger? Under the extra width of a 17-18" screen you could fit a number pad and an optical drive.

Louis van Lammeren | Jan 27, 2008 | 11:15PM