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Apple Faces Flaws, Makes Fixes

There was a time when nothing was hipper than Apple—it had colors when others were grappling with grayscale,  a sense of style that was way out front, and mice when the rest of the world was stuck on “chicklet keyboards”—but gradually computing shifted. Due to wide adoption of the PCI bus family, the PC industry emerged from its chaotic swamp of standards and got traction. Then, smaller got better. The form factor of choice moved from the desk to the backpack. Computing in the park became a feasible release from deskbound postures and fluorescent lighting. Apple was there. And then wireless got big. PC users could untie themselves from network vines (and the attendant costs of endless cabling and switchgear). Again, Apple was in the lead, showing the world that the words “stylish” and “laptop,” and “airport” could go together well.  

At length, the backpacks turned into pockets. Computing entered the cellular age. Apple showed the world just how smart phones should look and feel. But now the open source software world has finally gotten it.  With Android we're now seeing HTC leading the pack with the 4G EVO on Sprint.  Samsung's Galaxy S is making strong headway in the Asia Pac regions, and even Motorola is joining in on the Android bandwagon with the Droid X, a 4:3 ratio cell phone catering to movie buffs.  These phones have all hit the market at the same time as Apple's iPhone 4, and have many features the iPhone lacks.  Form and function have finally collided.  Where once, Apple could enforce cool—being uber-stylish was enough to drive sales to the part of the population that demanded to be different—the pressure of being out front technically and looking good may finally have broken some branches. 

The most recent eyebrow-raiser involved the antenna on the iPhone 4. Apparently, after inspiring a vortex of videos and a cacophony of charges and rebuttals, the public has determined that the darn thing shorts out if you hold the phone the wrong way. (There was also some concern about just who should pick up the iPhone in bars.) And then there was a software dust up—signal strength apparently isn’t what it used to be, if you go by the meter. Although still close to our hearts, a lot of Apple value may be moving toward the surface. Originally, Apple led by innovative design, inside and out. But gradually the company seems to have emphasized form over substance. Apple today uses similar hardware and similar software to most everyone else and plenty of folks are now learning that form contributes to function. Apple has always had a healthy sense of self esteem, but some critics have begun to call this hubris. If unchangeable batteries died (iPod), users were encouraged to upgrade to a model with more memory. If a first release was missing functionality, hotfixes appeared as exciting upgrades. It all appears to have tumbled down, however, when iPhone 4 antennas were suspected of shorting out because customers sometimes held their phones the “wrong way.” So there was a moment of truth.  The company looked inward, stepped up, did a clear-voiced mea culpa, and made things right.   

A $30 dollar drop-protection case (called by some a “blunt klutz trauma preventer”), now ships free of charge with each new iPhone. It was a smart move. Considering that the tiny platform has computing power that just yesterday required locked doors and air conditioning, and realizing that the Lilliputian handset includes three versions of wireless, a protective cover may be the least it deserves. And besides, some estimates of the cost of a product recall went as high as $2 billion. Ask any twenty-something, cell phones are lifelines. When one needs a phone the most, it is not the time to hold the fingers a special way. But now, crisis averted. Apple can go forward. I wonder what they’ll think of next.

Rick Lehtinen, Consultant

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