Jan 12

Apple’s predictable unpredictability

First of all, welcome to 2012. Okay, so I’m a little behind the rest of the world, but I finally made it.

The new year actually makes a perfect topic for Week 1. As you probably noticed, this week we got a mini-flood of articles about what we can expect from Apple in 2012: iPad 3, iPhone 5, Apple TV, slim MacBook Pro. To which most of us would say:


Of course that’s what’s coming. It’s hardly news. I’ll tell ya, secrecy just isn’t what it used to be.

Though Apple continues to be thought of as one of the most secretive companies on earth, the truth is, they’ve lost the ability to surprise us like they did in the good old days.

The products are still amazing. The announcement events are fun. We still get surprised by the details as they are unveiled. It’s just that we know in advance what the products will be.

It wasn’t always this way. When Steve returned to Apple in 1997, secrets were secrets. His onstage announcements were real surprises (for the most part). The look of iMac was a shock. You had no idea that Apple was going to enter the consumer electronics market with iPod. You weren’t sure which Apple technology would be the focus of each event.

Breaches of secrecy were a scandal. Several days before the introduction of the first multicolored iMacs, the official family photo of all five models escaped from a printing facility in Germany, where a version of the multipage insert was being printed. It took the steam out of Steve’s big announcement — which was a crime punishable by death. (Or something close to it.)

As Apple has grown, and more people are exposed to the deep, dark secrets at various stages of product development, that kind of secrecy doesn’t exist anymore.

People were talking about iPhone — and calling it by name — months before it appeared. The name iPad was a surprise, but the device wasn’t — it was also widely expected months before, and its features accurately predicted.

This isn’t a terrible thing. It’s just a different thing. The new “iTV” (or whatever it will be called) will get the same attention this year. There will be buzz for months ahead, because Apple shaking up a new category is a great story. Journalists will hang on every word at the announcement event, even if many of the details become known before.

The only difference between now and then is that we know it’s coming. At least in the broad strokes.

I do find myself wondering about one thing this year. What’s next for Mac Pro? While it has grown in power, no product in Apple history has gone this long without a major overhaul. Mac Pro can now be officially classified as a “workhorse.” We’ve come to expect internal improvements only, but no major conceptual rethinking.

Will Apple demonstrate a new commitment to the pro market? Or will Mac Pro get upgraded the way Final Cut Pro did? Does Apple still love the high-end pros, or is it really just focusing on different levels of consumer now?

While it may be easier to predict Apple’s hardware these days, predicting its intentions is a different matter.

Happy 2012.

Oct 11

Zigging when Apple zags

Sometimes Google seems to do some extraordinary acrobatics just to prove it isn’t Apple.

Speaking at the All Things Digital conference in Asia yesterday, Andy Rubin made it a point out their difference in philosophy.

1. He doesn’t believe in tablet-specific apps. All apps should work on a phone and scale up.

2. He doesn’t believe the phone should be an assistant. “You shouldn’t be communicating with the phone — you should be communicating with somebody on the other side of the phone,” he said.

Statements like these diminish Google, mostly because they fly in the face of common sense. Rubin makes it sound like it’s more important to dismiss Apple’s advances than it is to move forward.

His view on tablet-specific apps appears to be a defense for the Android Marketplace having so few of them. That number has been cited as anywhere from 300 to 3,000 — whatever, it’s way less than Apple’s 140,000.

Obviously, many apps can scale perfectly well from a phone to a tablet if they’re written to do so. Just as obviously, there’s a big difference between a 4-inch screen and a 10-inch screen. Though many apps can successfully scale, common sense says that a bigger screen opens up new possibilities. Otherwise, we’d all be running phone apps on our 27-inch screens too.

To be dismissive of Siri is to appear almost Luddite-ish. Even in its beta form, Siri is shaping up to be a monster hit. Again, common sense. It’s infinitely easier to say “Set alarm for 8am” than it is to go through the normal routine. Controlling the phone’s more advanced capabilities the same way feels nothing less than miraculous. And phones are just the start.

Apple didn’t denigrate Android’s superior voice recognition capability, they pushed it to a much higher level — the ability to intelligently interpret words to initiate actions. You’re a smart guy, Andy, but to dismiss this kind of leap with comments like “you shouldn’t be communicating with the phone” is pretty embarrassing.

Common sense says one other thing, too. Not too far in the future, Android will feature a built-in intelligent assistant. It may even help you explore Android’s library of made-for-tablet apps.


Aug 11

The tough and brief life of Streak 5

Dell’s Streak 5 phone/tablet may now officially be classified as phone/tablet/dud.

Visitors to the Streak 5 page at Dell.com are now greeted by the above, with Dell giving it the happy spin: “Goodbye, Streak 5. It’s been a great ride.”

Interesting what qualifies as a “great ride” in Dell’s world: a product ill-conceived from the start, then sabotaged by some of the clumsiest ads in the business.

Trying to figure out how to cash in on iPad-mania, Dell decided it could wedge itself into success. “Hey, if tablets are so popular at 10 inches and phones are so popular at 3-4 inches, we could virtually own the 5-inch category.” And own it they did — for the nearly undetectable group of customers who actually wanted such a thing.

Rather than being the perfect size Dell proclaimed it to be, Streak 5 was too big to be a phone and too small to be a tablet. That much was obvious to anyone with eyeballs.

Not content to hobble Streak 5 with an awkward size, Dell went the extra yard by hobbling it in other inventive ways. Streak 5 was launched with Android 1.6, while the rest of the Android world was already onto version 2.2. And its unlocked version was actually priced higher than an iPad. Perfect.

Oh well, least they could make some good ads for it, right? Uh-uh. Not that this blog is the perfect measure of such things, but Streak 5 actually earned two posts here for advertising embarrassments in its short, tortured life. (See those here and here, if you are so disposed.)

If Streak 5 were a real child, Dell would be facing charges of neglect.

But don’t worry. You can still get a 7-inch Streak. And though they’ve certainly taken the scenic route to get there, rumor has it that Dell is finally working on the 10-inch size that’s been such a terrible burden for iPad.

So farewell Streak 5. At least you got to enjoy one great ride. Dell strapped you into the back seat and drove directly off the cliff.

Jul 11

Cult epidemic breaks out in tech industry

As you know, Apple fans lost touch decades ago.

They’re a cult — hypnotized sheep, blindly following their savior Steve Jobs. They line up to fork over their cash for overpriced devices, unfazed by the fact that Apple only wants to control them. By the tens of millions, they surrender their free will, buying technology no one could really like. One day they’ll wake up and see how foolish they’ve been.

But we live in a competitive world. New and even more deluded cults are springing up all around us. Even the smart people are being sucked into them — behaving in ways that defy explanation.

Just two days ago, 700 members of the RIM cult held a meeting. These people have already exhibited irrational behavior by actually purchasing RIM stock. Inexplicably, they applauded the company’s leadership, even though RIM’s earnings are rapidly plummeting as their once-invincible empire continues to crumble. Then people who should know better started voicing strange opinions — like the investment executive who said that he didn’t hear anything that gave him concerns about the company’s direction. His firm was sitting on 100,000 of those steadily declining shares.

Meanwhile, the PC cult was meeting over at Microsoft, at the Worldwide Partners Conference. Here, Steve Ballmer held up the divine numbers, showing 350 million Windows licenses in the past year vs. 20 million for the other guys. “350, the last time I checked, is a lot more than 20,” said Ballmer to the delight of his followers. Yet nobody took note of the fact that PC sales continue to slide, and Microsoft remains far, far behind in phones and tablets.

Then, right on cue, the High Lord of Windows Phone 7 rose to proclaim that Microsoft will never use a mobile OS to power a tablet, because what people really want in a tablet is PC power. It’s Windows all the way. The crowd applauded, seemingly unconcerned that over 25 million people have fallen in love with their puny, un-PC iPads, or that netbook shipments have basically collapsed due to iPad’s runaway sales. Love of PC is core to this crowd, and they’ll cling to it till their last dying breath.

Being the easily led Apple type of cult follower, I’m tempted to join up with one of these other cults. Their kind of irrational thinking appeals to me. I’ll contemplate this more when I return from my daily Apple Store visit.

Jul 11

HP’s off-kilter shot at iPad

Congratulations. You’re a creative guy who just got the biggest break of his career. You’ve been asked to come up with a multimillion-dollar campaign for HP’s iPad-killer, the TouchPad.

Your head hurts from all the celebrating last night. Unfortunately, it’s about to hurt more — because it’ll be pretty darn hard to come up with an idea that will even put a dent in iPad, which virtually owns the market. Especially with a product that exists only because iPad blazed the trail before it.

What to do, what to do…

Trust me, I’m sympathetic to the challenge here. I was once hired to come up with a Sony campaign that would “bring down the iPod.” Somehow iPod survived that massive creative threat.

So the big idea for TouchPad turned out to be a celebrity spokesperson. That’s not a bad idea in itself. Some of the greatest campaigns in ad history have employed the celebrity spokesperson. It’s just that when you go this route, you have to think long and hard about the celebrity you’re choosing.

Is he/she:

1. Compatible with the brand?
2. Appealing to those you’re trying to convince?
3. Capable of presenting the product well?
4. Truly entertaining?
5. Likely to be busted for lewd behavior?

If you don’t have all the right answers, you risk spending a lot of money on a very big zero. Or, worse still, a negative.

HP decided that Russell Brand was the right guy for the job. Not exactly a household name. In fact, when a commercial starts by telling you the guy’s name, it’s a good indication that most people won’t know who the hell he is. Again, not a deal-killer, but something to consider.

Russell is a quirky English personality with some bad-boy behavior in his past, legal and otherwise. Clearly HP is looking to be “edgy.” To me, he seems like an unrefined Ricky Gervais.

And this is the problem. To most, Russell comes across as just plain bizarre — and not all that funny. His humor comes with some awkwardness. When a joke falls flat (which it does often — like the “dental joke” in this spot), it feels like open-mike night down at the comedy club.

What about the content of this ad? Well, that’s problem #2. The product features we see in this ad are supposed to be things that are missing in iPad. However, simply because of the way Russell presents, very little of his demo seems extraordinary. Hardly enough to make one stop lusting for an iPad.

Russell’s most grievous offense comes at the end. That’s when he openly makes a play for his paycheck by reciting a line that sounds like it was written in the marketing department: “My life is like nothing else. So is yours. HP TouchPad. Works like nothing else.” So much for whatever shred of authenticity Russell was supposed to bring to this party.

But let’s look at this ad in context.

Is HP’s approach any better than Motorola’s high-tech, robotic, spec-laden ad for Xoom? I think so. Though the personality they’ve chosen is questionable, at least the ad has a personality. Will it turn TouchPad into a serious iPad threat? Don’t hold your breath.

(This ad appears to be the launch spot of the HP TouchPad campaign. See a bunch of other spots in this campaign strung together here.)

Jun 11

Apple’s new high vs. Dell’s new low

If anyone ever questioned the value of creativity in marketing, Apple and Dell are currently staging a public demonstration.

Scratch that — it’s actually more of a public debate.

With its new iPad ad, Apple argues that creativity can make a message more interesting and important. With the first ad in its new brand campaign, Dell takes the position that creativity is an unnecessary frill.

Here’s a quick look at two efforts that live on opposite ends of the creative spectrum.


Since Mac vs. PC ended, I haven’t fawned over too many Apple ads. What kind of fanboy am I? Well, we needn’t dwell on that now. This ad is Apple’s best in recent memory.

In fact, this is one of those ads that makes me jealous. It doesn’t try to be clever, it just is. It makes the point that iPad represents a sea change in computing without feeling self-important. And, miracle of miracles, it does all of this without using the words magical or revolutionary.

Against visuals of iPads doing various things in the hands of different people, Mr. Voiceover sums up what makes iPad so darn interesting:

“Now we can watch a newspaper, listen to a magazine, curl up with a movie, and see a phone call … [and more] … because now there’s this.”

Many tech companies fail to grasp that simple, everyday speech can be the most intelligent way to present a product. Here, Apple describes iPad using the most ordinary words, but combines them in a way that feels totally fresh — and important.

This spot is actually a continuation of two previous iPad ads, both of which were more lofty presentations of Apple’s philosophy. In this spot, Apple does not stand up to proclaim “we believe…” (which can come off as arrogant to some). It simply describes how iPad changes the way you look at the world.

This is the toughest kind of copy to write — unpretentious, intelligent and compelling. Whoever is responsible should take a very big bow. This ad fits well with the best in Apple history.


When Hollywood directors could no longer bear the thought of being associated with a film, they used to cleanse themselves by giving the director’s credit to the imaginary Alan Smithee.

From the first glimpse of Dell’s new $80 million campaign, this could well end up being the first marketing effort ever credited to Mr. Smithee.

The ad you see here was featured in a recent Advertising Age fluff piece, accompanied by quotes from Dell’s chief marketing person. So I can only assume it’s for real — even though it looks and feels like a placeholder awaiting real photography. And a real designer. And a real writer. And a real strategy.

This ad is significant because it marks the beginning of what is supposed to be Dell’s first-ever brand campaign. It’s meant to provide the big, overarching message for individual product ads yet to come.

In other words, it is supposed to be to Dell what Think different was to Apple. I’ll go out on a limb and predict it won’t have quite the same impact.

The only positive thing one can say about this campaign is that it will provide income for stock photo sites specializing in hackneyed people shots.

There are a total of 34 words in this ad. 15 of them — almost half — are the same five words, repeated three times. The power to do more serves as headline, theme line and last line of copy.

Why pound these words into our thick skulls? Perhaps it’s to distinguish Dell’s use of The power to do more from all the others who are using it — including Norlift Fork Lifts, Belkin High-Performance Routers,  Lenovo Docking Solutions, GE Healthcare, Kensington iPad Batteries and who knows how many others. (The 5.6 million Google results for this line were making me groggy.) This is originality, Dell-style.

And it’s not like the remaining 19 words are jewels either. In Dell’s world, boring words fit like a comfortable shoe:

With a range of solutions in cloud computing, interactive learning, healthcare, efficient IT and global services, Dell gives you…

Basically, Dell is saying that what sets them apart is that they churn out a boatload of stuff. So they choose to deliver an undistinguished message built upon an overused theme.

Makes you want to run right out and buy a Dell, doesn’t it?

Jun 11

WWDC 2011: the morning after

Ah, the joy of software. This really is the stuff that makes Apple Apple, and it was fun to see such widespread improvements in one fell swoop.

As usual, some random day-after thoughts.

Mac OS X

Full-screen apps. This is a personal favorite. Can’t wait to see it in action. I currently use full-screen with all apps that enable it, and always appreciate the focus it brings. We’ve got the screen space — it’s a shame not to use it all.

Auto-Save. I look forward to not repeating some of the more humbling failures of my past. Turning the window title into a pop-up menu to access past versions is a nice touch. Being able to copy and paste from old versions is even nicer.

The feature count. Poor Lion. Only 250 new features. Leopard had 300.

Lion power, kitty price. $29 is amazing. Snow Leopard was the aberration at $29, compared to all the $129 Mac OS X upgrades before. But there was a reason for that — Snow Leopard’s changes were mostly in the plumbing. Lion is as rich an upgrade as any upgrade in history, but the price stays remarkably low. Why? My guess is that (a) Apple wants to move the entire base forward, because (b) there is far more money to be made down the road with a new foundation. I’m not being cynical, it’s just good business. The more people shopping in the Mac App Store and purchasing future iCloud capabilities, the merrier.

Space travel. I don’t know about you, but I’m sick to death of the current log-in star field and Time Machine theme. It wore out its welcome a long time ago, so I expected it to be replaced — but not by another space scene. Apparently, now we have a galaxy image. Apple has always delivered simplicity and elegance, and the space thing always felt like someone else’s idea of “cool.” Can’t we just pick our own backgrounds?


Feature count, revisited. Only 200 new features in iOS, compared to Lion’s 250 features. Obviously it’s harder to fit new features in a smaller screen.

The big payoff. To excite the crowd, Forstall showed off a slide stating that Apple has paid developers a total of $2.5 billion. It’s a great number until you do the math with the slide right before: customers have downloaded 14 billion apps from the App Store. Let’s see … 2.4 billion divided by 14 billion … that’s about 18 cents an app. Obviously, this says a lot about how many free apps are downloaded.

Notifications. Yippee! At last! It’s interesting that Forstall first confessed that there are problems current notifications, and then said, “We’ve built something that solves some of the problems…” Some?

Safari Reader. One of my favorite features. People may accept that ads pay the bills, but the ultimate reading experience will always be an ad-free zone.

Reading List. Love it. File away an article to be read later, and have that list appear on all your devices.

The geo-fence. Probably my favorite new term from the show (and very cool feature). In telling how Reminders work, Forstall talked about setting up a geo-fence around Moscone, so when he left the building he’d get a reminder. Hopefully, by winter we’ll have geothermal fences.

Camera. Despite talk about the quality of the iPhone camera, I rarely use it. One reason is the damn shutter button on the screen. Sorry, it’s awkward and just not the way we’re accustomed to using cameras. Using the hard Volume Up button as a shutter button makes me an instant fan. Photo-taking is also way improved by the new editing capabilities.

iMessage. It was presented as working across all iOS devices. What about the Mac? Wouldn’t I want to text people while I’m stuck at my desk?

iPhone 5 clue. With iOS 5 coming in the fall, the obvious conclusion is that it will come hand-in-hand with iPhone 5. I can hang in there that long.


Demoting the PC. What a great example of Steve Jobs’ ability to simplify in the boldest way. He said they were demoting computers to be just devices, and moving the center of your digital life to the cloud. You get it in a second. And what PC company CEO on earth would say they’re “demoting” one of their biggest moneymakers?

Facing facts. When promoting iCloud, Steve paused to say: “Now why should I believe them? They’re the ones who brought me MobileMe … MobileMe was not our finest hour.” Say what you will about Steve, he dares to be honest.

DropBox killer? Nope. At least not yet. And I’m glad, because DropBox remains one of the greatest Mac utilities ever created. DropBox far out-iDisked iDisk, and its makers deserve to be rewarded, not obsoleted.

What about Me? Obviously the me.com site will ultimately be the icloud.com site. Do we still want me.com email addresses (did we ever?). Does the “me” word really have a place in the iCloud concept? We’ll soon find out…

Documents in the Cloud. Not the shortest name Apple has come up with. But it does have that “gorillas in the mist” meter going for it.

iTunes Match. Huge question mark. No one seems to know if this is a way to subscribe to iTunes versions of the songs you already own, or if your $24.99/year allows you to download the higher-quality versions of your songs to your own computer forever. So $24.99 is either one of the world’s great bargains — or not.

Antiquities. On one of the slides appearing behind Steve Jobs is a stack of CDs. Damn, they’re hideous. Did we ever actually use those things?

AAPL is down. It dropped five bucks yesterday. Down another $3.50 as I write this. Call this “iPad Syndrome.” Remember the industry’s reaction to the original iPad? “Just a big iPhone.” “No surprises, no new breakthroughs.” “Apple’s first dud.” The stock dropped. In broad strokes, just about everything we saw yesterday was “expected.” However, what’s expected can be the start of a whole new world. Like iPad.

The prognosticators. Not that we need to be reminded to take people’s opinions with a grain of salt, but… John Gruber’s pre-WWDC idea was “Think of iCloud as the new iTunes.” In fact, he’s still describing it that way after the show. It’s a good sound bite, but not totally accurate. In truth, iCloud is exactly what Steve Jobs said: the new hub of your digital life. Yes, that includes your iTunes content, but it also includes the things you create. For now, that includes the documents you create in iWork, but that capability will no doubt expand. iCloud is about your whole life — documents, photos, contacts, calendars, etc. — not just your entertainment. The Cult of Mac’s “exclusive” was obviously absurd, yet was quoted by many blogs and news services. They said iCloud would not be hosted in Apple’s new data center after all, but instead would reside on your Time Capsule (purchase required if you don’t already own one). Somehow it never struck them that Apple was signing contracts with the music companies for the rights to do something new with their music, not just store it on a personal hard disk.

All in all, good show. Let’s do it again sometime.

May 11

PlayBook’s bad ad: it takes a village

When you see a particularly painful headline out there, it’s easy to blame the writer.

However, every ad — good or bad — has a long list of accomplices, without whom it could never, ever see the light of day.

The bad headline I focus on today is the one that RIM has proudly wrapped around their new PlayBook tablet: Amateur hour is over.

Let us first admire the irony of it.

Just Google “PlayBook review” and pick a review at random. There’s an 80% chance it’ll be a negative one. Clearly, the overall sense is that PlayBook is missing too many important features to be a serious choice — especially for business people, for whom it was supposedly designed.

The fact that Playbook is incapable of doing email without connecting to a BlackBerry is a shortcoming beyond imagination.

The inappropriateness of a half-finished tablet being released under the banner Amateur hour is over is obvious. What fascinates me is how things like this come to be.

Like the good ol’ U.S. Constitution, agencies are built on a system of checks and balances. While creative people are encouraged to go wild and break all the rules, they’re rarely trusted with the keys to the car. There is a system in place to ensure that an ad can’t run if it is (a) bad, (b) off-strategy or (c) legally risky.

The approvals process varies by agency, but a major ad campaign normally must navigate quite an obstacle course. It would have to get by at least one creative director, the account director, strategy people and probably a senior agency executive as well. That’s before it even gets to the client, who has their own winding road of approvals leading up to the VP of Marketing and CEO.

Given this, it’s nothing less than mind-boggling that a campaign can make it out into the world when it’s carrying a flashing neon sign that says “please kill me.”

Against a nearly perfect competitor — a slick, polished, 2.0 iPad — and lacking basic business functionality, RIM positions PlayBook as a business device under the theme Amateur hour is over.


It’s also damning. Because the entire conga line of approvers who had to sign off on this should have known better. It’s as much a lapse in common sense as it is a lapse of strategy.

So I leap to defend my fellow writer, the person who came up with these unfortunate words. Maybe it was just a bad hangover. A sprawling organization of marketing people, agency and client, can take credit for RIM’s latest black eye.

That having been said, the whole bunch of them should send a note down to RIM’s engineering department with the message: “please don’t do that again.”

May 11

Apple ads vs. the fleeting state of cool

You are so damn fickle.

Sure, you love your Apple ads today. (Like this one for iPad 2.) But history shows you’ll not only lose interest in the near future — you’ll be embarrassed that you ever liked them in the first place.

That’s just the nature of the beast in the ad world. What rates so high on the Cool-o-Meter today looks dated within in a few years, and gets unwatchable a short time after.

And it’s not just you. The whole world grows weary of these things. It’s as if the taste and values of millions evolve in unison.

Great casting becomes miscasting. Great acting turns into amateur hour. Ads shot by acclaimed directors, adored by audiences the world over, become faint memories.

Sadly, there is no fountain of youth for advertising. Most ads wear out their welcome about as fast as you can say “Newton.”

The problem, of course, is that everything on this earth starts getting old the moment it’s born. (Except you, of course.) Every new thing — from music to movies, from books to neat little devices — gets more sophisticated. It helps raise the collective sophistication of all of us.

We gain a new appreciation for the new and a new disdain for the old.

What brought on this little outburst? To be honest, I was just looking through my “favorite ad” archives and being amazed that I ever thought some of them even remotely good. And it wasn’t just me, it was you too. Unbelievably, many of them have slipped from super-cool to outright embarrassing.

At least we don’t have to go on public record about what ads we think are cool. Steve Jobs does. Every time he approves an ad from Apple (and he does approve every single one), he’s saying “here’s one I really like.”

Here’s one he really liked some 30 years ago for the Apple II. I, for one, am very glad he grew up.

Apr 11

Michael Dell’s judicious use of words

Hell, who saw that one coming?

From yesterday’s WSJ’s interview with Michael Dell.

WSJ: What has surprised you most about the evolution of the tech industry [since your return as CEO of Dell four years ago]:

Michael Dell: I’d say [the] rapid rise of the tablet. I didn’t completely see that coming.

I’d truly love to know exactly what parts he didn’t see coming. Maybe it was the hardware and software parts?

Then again, Michael doesn’t always express himself too well. He said “didn’t completely” when he really meant “completely didn’t.”