Mar 11

Why MobileMe will be free

MobileMe has always been the bad boy of the Apple product portfolio. It’s not like Apple doesn’t give it frequent makeovers. It just never seems to attract a crowd.

So it’s not surprising there is speculation out there about the future of MobileMe.

Who knows what Apple will do in the end, but there are some compelling reasons to believe it will become a free service.

MobileMe is a tough sell. It’s always been a tough sell. And Apple is really good at turning a problem into an advantage.

When I say it’s a tough sell, I’m talking specifically about what goes on in the Apple Stores. When a customer buys any Mac or i-device, the sales person is trained to sell them on two additional purchases: AppleCare and MobileMe.

AppleCare is a no-brainer. That’s because it’s easy to understand and worth the price. Pay a modest fee and get two additional years on your warranty.

MobileMe is another story. It’s got lots of parts, so it’s hard to explain. And the fact is, most people just don’t need all the parts. So they decline the opportunity to plunk down 99 bucks.

Every so often, some anonymous Apple employee dares to go public, as this one did recently. He confirms how difficult it is to sell MobileMe. I usually take these things with a grain of salt, but this is consistent with what I’ve read elsewhere and what I’ve heard from my own sources.

Apple has made some gallant efforts to spice up MobileMe, but the result has always been the same. People are lukewarm on it at best.

But now that so many years have passed, the current version of MobileMe faces more vexing problems than its previous iterations ever did. It has competitors who offer pretty good products — most of which are free.

If you’ve had an email address for years, chances are you won’t get too excited about having a me.com address.

If you use Dropbox to sync files amongst multiple computers, you probably won’t get too excited about iDisk.

If you sync calendars and contacts with Google, you probably won’t care much about iCal and Address Book syncing.

If you want to share your photos online, you can easily do that any number of ways.

So what’s the big advantage of MobileMe these days? Like most Apple solutions, its advantage is simplicity. Even if you only have a Mac and an iPhone, the convenience of MobileMe is hard to beat. Just turn it on and your stuff is automatically synced. Don’t underestimate the power of that.

Though MobileMe is a good thing, it’s not a $99 thing. It’s the kind of advantage you expect from Apple, but don’t expect to pay for.

Unless Apple has a secret plan to turn MobileMe into MagicMe, it’s time to officially make the service what it should be — a basic part of the Apple experience.

This way, MobileMe would simply be one more reason to choose the Apple way. It would stop being a “one more thing” message from the sales person, and become part of the main sell. It would delight new customers and strengthen the loyalty of current ones.

Millions would happily buy into the idea of MobileMe — as long as they’re not asked to buy it.

Mar 11

A brief eulogy for Zune

Dear friends, neighbors and colleagues,

We gather here today to remember the life of Zune,

A life that touched more people than you can count on one hand.

Zune’s journey was short by most measures.

It was lonely by all measures.

But no one will deny that Zune stood for something.

It dared to be different.

Zune proved that you don’t need legions of fans to feel like a success.

You can do just fine on annual cash infusions from a very rich dad.

Zune didn’t need a clever interface, a giant music store, or even a good review.

Zune was a rebel. The anti-Pod. Born on the wrong side of the bell curve.

If iPods were blue and green and pink, then by god — Zune would dare to be brown.

When iPod spoke in dollars, Zune would speak in Microsoft Points.

While iPods were solitary affairs, Zune once offered a neighborly “squirt.”

Thrown to the lions, Zune would grow up remarkably fast.

In fact, before it was even a year old, it was wheezing like an octogenarian.

No matter how badly Zune was humiliated in market share, Dad would always say, “we can beat them.”

Then, one day, even that bottomless wallet would run dry.

Despite his endlessly encouraging words, Dad was forced to pull the plug,

And Zune’s body was left to wither.

But now, before the last charge has even run out, we learn that the spirit of Zune may yet live —

In Windows Phones and tablets that we can only dream about today.

Yes, one day, when Microsoft is back on top,

When long lines of customers form around Microsoft Stores the world over,

The crowds clamoring for a taste of that Microsoft magic,

Someone, somewhere will conjure up a home screen,

Touch a button,

And maybe,

Just maybe,

Zune will live to squirt again.

Nov 10

A home page is worth a thousand words

This post is not about the Beatles coming to iTunes. And it will not contain a single Beatles title repurposed as clever copy.

This is really just about the current Apple home page, which is now all Beatles. And I mean all Beatles. No MacBook Airs, no holiday iPods, no news. Just Beatles.

For anyone looking for evidence that Apple doesn’t work like other companies, consider this Exhibit A.

The home page is the most valuable real estate a company owns (at least marketing-wise). Now, for a single cause, Apple removes all hardware selling messages as the busiest buying season descends upon us.

Oh okay, Mr. Cynical. You do have a point that this Beatles tribute isn’t exactly altruistic. It’s there because Apple intends to make a ton of money. And probably because they had to promise this very thing as part of the Beatles deal.

But they are doing this to the exclusion of everything else they make. And this isn’t the first time Apple has dedicated its home page to a message bigger than its products. In fact, previously they’ve done this from the heart, completely sacrificing business as usual.

There were memorial home pages for board member Jerome York (earlier this year) and George Harrison (2001). Rosa Parks (2005) and Gregory Hines (2003) got the main home page image, though product messages remained at the bottom.

It boils down to that fact that Apple tends to act more like a person than a company. Wonder why. From a brand standpoint, this is a very good thing. One of the biggest reasons why Apple connects with its customers emotionally is that it has no problem expressing its values — sometimes in dramatic ways.

Sep 10

iTunes as target practice

Whew. As the iPhone 4 antenna controversy faded into the sunset, I worried that Apple might not give us anything new to get rankled about.

But then right on cue comes iTunes 10 — which has successfully taken its place as the lightning rod du jour.

Let’s start with the undeniable: iTune 10 has flaws.

Personally, I’m fine with a flaw now and then. Apple is successful because it allows itself to take chances, and great leaps often come with a few stumbles. However, making mistakes is one thing — overlooking the obvious is another.

Ping launched with a nasty spam problem that turned off a lot of people. Literally as I write this, Apple has defeated the spam. It’s just incomprehensible that a company this smart would so naively launch a service like Ping without considering its vulnerability to spam. It was an unnecessary black eye.

I’m surprised that Apple unveiled Ping with so few participating artists. Following your favorite artists seems like at least half of Ping’s draw. It would have been an awesome start to have hundreds of artists signed up for the launch, but apparently secrecy trumped recruitment. Now Ping must go through a growing pain that also wasn’t necessary.

I’m surprised that Ping profiles allow users to express an interest in only three musical genres. Even I, ridiculed for my pathetically myopic taste in music, enjoy more than three genres.

Then there’s the matter of the new iTunes icon. Many believe it’s ugly and amateurish. Well, okay, good point. But its problem goes deeper. If Apple thought it was time to redesign the iTunes icon, I would expect them to aim for what iTunes is now, not what it was 10 years ago. Far more than music, iTunes has become the central access point for all our entertainment, including movies and TV shows. Yet the new icon focuses iTunes even more single-mindedly on music. (At least the now-discarded disc, archaic as it was, could have been loosely interpreted as music and movies.)

Apple's new iTunes icon vs. a concerned citizen's redesign (via Mashable.com)

In a Mashable article over the weekend, a number of designers pitched in their alternate ideas for an iTunes icon. You can be sure a similar exercise took place inside Apple. Obviously the priority was losing the boat anchor of the CD, rather than trying to capture the evolved spirit of iTunes.

Though I agree with some of the iTunes complaints out there, I don’t necessarily agree with the proposed solutions. For example, some believe that iTunes has simply become too bloated, and therefore needs to be broken into chunks. In my opinion, what they’re really saying is that it’s no longer as easy or fun to access the goodies as we’ve come to expect from Apple. Having everything in one place is the simplest way to go. iTunes just needs a thoughtful, imaginative interface overhaul. This is what Apple does best, and one wonders why this need has gone so long unaddressed.

I haven’t a shred of doubt that iTunes will quickly overcome its immediate issues. I will sit patiently, along with my three preferred musical genres, for the improvements to come.

Sep 10

Apple hits the high notes

Fans of over-analysis surely enjoyed the rumors about what was going to happen at yesterday’s Apple event. Thankfully, that’s all behind us now. It’s time to start over-analyzing what really happened. Here’s my contribution:

Live streaming. Welcome back! After five years, it was good to see you again. If this was a real-world test of Apple’s new billion-dollar server farm as some speculated, I’d give it a 95% rating. The video was fantastic, except for a few glitches. Just need one little tweak in Server #11,355. (Update: See comment below. This may have been Akamai’s technology, not Apple’s.)

The Perky Factor. Haven’t seen Steve this “on” in a while. He was enthusiastic, animated and funny. That’s entertainment.

iOS 4.1. Kudos for fixing the two unforgiveables: (1) the proximity sensor, and (2) the horrid performance on iPhone 3G. Wireless printing is cool, but I’m most anxious to try out the HDR photo feature. You haven’t gotten me to leave my pocket camera at home yet.

iPod shuffle. Feels like a “do-over.” Has any new iPod ever been larger than the model it replaced? Buttons are back. Remote/earphone combo is gone. Much, much better. Apple design leads the industry, but on occasion it does lead them astray.

iPod nano. Holy cow. Home run. Out of the park. Love it to death. Apple will sell a ton of these in the holiday season. Who among us can resist the lure? Just don’t think you slipped this one by us, Apple: Last year, all your marketing was about the cool new video feature, this year you’ve removed it. We’ll let this one slide, only because it wasn’t real video anyway (not HD) and this mini-touchscreen is just too damn cool.

iPod touch. iPhone 4 set us up for this one. It’s exactly what everyone expected: Retina display, dual cameras and FaceTime. And let’s have a big hand for the A4 chip, which is now powering iPod, iPhone and iPad. Nice and snappy.

iPod prices. Our traditional deal with Apple has always been “more features, same price.” Is it my imagination, or are these prices creeping upward? Cue Darth Vader: “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it further.”

iPod ads. When a company gets big and successful, nobody wants to be the one to screw it up. So you begin to stick with things simply because “they work” — even though the younger, brasher version of yourself wouldn’t have thought twice about shaking things up. The new ads are perfectly fine. They’re just awfully familiar. In fact, the new touch ad (click in the image above and skip to 35:40) is virtually a carbon copy of the 2009 touch ad and the 2008 touch ad — except now FaceTime is added at the end.

iTunes 10. Ping is a huge, huge, huge addition. Until now, Apple has been more of a bystander in social media, and Ping puts them right in the thick of it. Or at least closer to the thick of it. Following friends’ discoveries and following your favorite artists is one of those “why didn’t they think of this before” kind of things. Perfect. I’m already signed up and horrifying my friends with my musical taste.

Zing! Bing! Ping! But can we talk about the Ping thing? Since when does Apple go with a me-too product name? Zing was an embarrassing failure for Dell. Microsoft is putting millions behind Bing at this very moment. Surely there’s a better word in that dictionary somewhere.

AppleTV. Huge step in the right direction, giving us access to Netflix, movies, TV shows, all those good things. $99 is a great price. Its tiny form is impressive, though in practical use not a terrific benefit. It’s still another box with cables sticking out of it. Question: what happens to my current AppleTV? It’s not like Apple to render a product obsolete so quickly. May I have a credit, please?

All in all: great show, Apple. Thank you for a fun and interesting afternoon. Just make sure you terrify the right people in the lead-up to the next show. Your secrets seem to be leaking more and more these days…