Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Apple introduces new me-too products

Apple announced at a carefully orchestrated Bay Area media event today that it's launching a music-oriented social network tied to iTunes and a new incarnation of its "Apple TV" device, which chief executive Steve Jobs admitted hasn't been a bestseller. Jobs also revealed an new iPod lineup and bragged about the number of "iOS" devices that are being activated on a daily basis.

But the focus of the event, according to media reports, seemed to be these two new "me-too" products: Ping (the social network) and Apple TV.

The new Apple TV is essentially a small box of plastic and metal that goes somewhere near your television. It cannot be used to download movies or television shows. It can only be used to stream video.

In that sense, it's no different than a traditional cable or satellite set-top box, which millions of American households already have. Since it is not a computer and cannot be multipurposed, why is Apple even trying to sell the device in the first place? All the box does is pipe rentals over broadband to a television set; this is something cable networks have been doing for years. Admittedly, cable is expensive, but then, so are products sold by Apple.

I can't see many cable customers calling up Comcast and canceling so they can buy a box for a hundred dollars and then pay an additional dollar every time they want to watch just one episode of a television show.

What, exactly, is the market for Apple TV?

What's even funnier is that so far only two networks have signed on to provide content through Apple TV: ABC and Fox. Although both networks' parent companies own cable channels, it's not clear if they are included in the Apple deal.

Since ABC and Fox are over-the-air channels, they are already available — for free — to anyone who owns a television set and an antenna. A person who likes a particular ABC or Fox show and wants to make it "on demand" today can easily do so by buying an inexpensive DVR and setting it to record every new episode, which he or she can then watch for free anytime. DVRs with disc-burning capabilities can be used to cheaply create a DVD collection as well.

I doubt that the Apple TV will have the appeal of the iPhone or even the iPad. The former has definitely become a status symbol... people think that owning one is cool, or makes them cool. In reality, the iPhone is merely a smartphone like its many competitors. It just has a more powerful brand.

What's more, the iPhone has shortcomings that competitors don't have, including a non-removable battery and a closed application ecosystem.

I've been able to make use of basic functionality on my BlackBerry — like copy and paste — that wasn't on the iPhone until like the third generation.

Ping seems to be Apple's attempt to create its own Facebook, anchored by music. Microsoft, of course, has already done something along these lines with Zune:
The Zune Social is a service integrated with Xbox Live that allows users to manage friends, send messages, and compare music. Each user has a personal Zune Tag, which corresponds with their Xbox Live Gamer Tag if they have one.
So many people have joined Facebook that many artists have created a presence there, allowing fans to follow them and comment on new releases. Many artists will doubtless set up shop on Ping too (since iTunes is where many people "buy" music), but people who aren't already using iTunes have little incentive to download it. I prefer digital music that is in a non-proprietary format, with no digital restrictions management, so I don't use iTunes.

Nor do I own an iPod, or have a desire to own one.

The hoopla that Apple generates every time it does one of these "exclusive" media events seems unwarranted to me. I've long held the view that Apple's products are inferior to the competition, and overpriced. I'd rather own a music player that can natively handle Vorbis files, for instance, than something with the Apple logo on it.

Unlike many people, I view my gadgets as tools, not toys. Usability and good design are important in a gadget, but Apple doesn't have a monopoly on either trait. What they do have that nobody else has is reverential media status. And in a media-driven culture, that counts for a lot.


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