What The Fuck Is Wrong With HP (and Everyone Else)

HP is a company I have always loved, whose products are well engineered and who have some of the brightest minds in Silicon Valley. So just what has got into HP and all the other computer makers, except Apple?

The recent news that HP has dropped the TouchPad a month after the US release and four days after the Australian one, the effective dropping of WebOS and the plans to follow IBM into a software and service future by offloading their PC business has amazed so many, me included.

If you believe the commentary going on, part of the blame is that companies like HP have very low profit margins on PC gear, whereas Apple does much better. And this might be the reason, but, if it is, no one has learned the proper lesson from this. I even read an article today saying that the right price for a tablet was US$300. And HP has sold well when dumping the TouchPad at very low prices. Now at this time the cheapest iPad 2 is US$499 and $579 here in Australia, and they seem to be selling all they can make. So something doesn’t add up here.

Historically Apple gear has always been more expensive than the competition. The iPod was more expensive than other MP3 players, the iPhone is more expensive than most other smartphones and the iPad is also more expensive than most tablets, including the HP one. The Macbook Air is likewise not overly cheap, and Macbook Pros, iMacs and PowerMacs are more expensive than superficially equivalent systems. Yet people buy them.

Apple has shown that people will pay more for superb design and excellent functionality. Apple has also shown a willingness to stick it out until products get accepted, as has happened with the Air. It was not always popular.

Yes, there is a very large part of the computer market that is extremely price sensitive, as shown by the run on TouchPads at $100 or so, but Apple’s experience has shown that there is a large segment that is not so price sensitive. Perhaps it would be better to say that there are customers for whom price is at or near the top of their priority list, and other customers for whom price is less critical and other factors count more.

Apple is not very reactive: it creates and makes other companies react to it. And any student of military history knows that you don’t win by giving your enemy the initiative. You must seize the initiative and make them react to you, and keep them doing so.

Oh what you could do with a company like HP and all that engineering experience. Rather than creating iPad wannabees, no matter how well they may be made, and undercutting on price, what about taking the opportunity to ‘Think Differently’ and do something unique, even if it takes several years for it to really catch on? Surely both shareholders and employees of HP should get the opportunity for some real benefit from the $1.2 billion spent all too recently on Palm?

We know that even an overpriced item will, due to Moore’s Law, come down in price as you get economies of scale and improvements in technology. So what about creating a truly drool-worthy tablet, laptop or some new category of device, even if the initial price will be US$1,000? Even if the production yields are quite low to start with it may not matter, as demand will be slow to start with. But as demand grows in line with better yields and lowering prices you have taken the initiative and others now have to react to you.

And beyond HP, what about all the other computer makers, phone makers and consumer electronics companies? All seem happy to innovate in little ways, a tweak here; a new feature there. Who is innovating anymore? Has the computer industry gone the way of Hollywood and will only rework old concepts or crank out more of the same in working franchises?

Apple has shown that you do not have to be the first in an area to win big. Apple didn’t release the first MP3 player or the first tablet. But they did release the best when they did. Let us be honest: the iPod is the best MP3 player, the iPhone is the best smartphone and the iPad is the best tablet, at present. Don’t let the annoyances that everyone feels with some of Apple’s policies and decisions get in the way of that realisation. Apple is the only real player in town and everyone else is following them.

How has Apple done what they have done? Two things. Stunning design for one. Secondly, they have taken all concepts to the extreme. The iPod eliminated almost all the buttons. The iPhone eliminated the keyboard and elevated the app to front and centre. The iPad also eliminated the keyboard completely, something many other tablet makers had tried to hang onto.

Apple has done some other things right too. Controlling both the hardware and software is a huge advantage. Though the gatekeeper role is annoying when apps that you really should be able to get are not approved, the controlled app environment for iPods, iPhones and iPads means that all the fear around malware is gone. And among less tech happy people fear is a BIG factor that holds them back from adopting new technology. I know many people who would never have bought another device, but have gone out and bought an iPhone or iPad and are buying and installing apps happily. Those same people would never have done that with Windows or Android.

It saddens me greatly to see an amazing company like HP walking away from an industry it helped found. Maybe the problem for HP is they have too many engineers and not enough dreamers. Because that is exactly what we need: dreamers in companies with the size and expertise to turn those dreams into reality.

 

Android Looking More Like a Good Platform to Develop For (or Has Apple Crossed to the Darkside)

An article from today on Fast Company presents some really interesting information about smart phone takeup rates and market penetration, so I recommend you go to the article and look it over. It has me thinking about many things to do with the iPhone and iPad.

What it shows is that while smart phones are still a small 19% of the total phone market, Android-based smart phones are doing very well in the market. Specifically, since third quarter 2009 the % of smartphones that use the Android platform has been rising smartly at exactly the same time that the % of smart phones from RIM (Blackberry) and Apple have dropped. Of course that does not mean that their overall numbers have dropped, or even stopped growing, but rather that as a % of all smart phones they have dropped slightly.

What this means for developers of applications is that they should not simply focus on Blackberry and iPhone development, but need to get behind Android too.

It would be speculation to discuss why the rapid rise of Android, and that is exactly what we will do. While I love my iPhone 3Gs, what I really love is the ability to easily use my phone to hold my music collection, apps that let me do productive work on the phone and the nice way it plays with my Apple computers and their software. There are things I do not like about my iPhone, such as only being able to put Apps on it that Apple has censored and approved, unless I am willing to jail break it. This seems too much like Stalinist Russia for my tastes.

Up until now Android phones have not been something I have paid much attention to, rather I’ve been concentrating on the iPhone and iPad and getting my head around app development for those and website compatibility with the iPad browser. That changes as of today.

While like everyone else in Australia I am awaiting my iPad arrival, I am considering my future relationship with Apple. I’ve been an Apple user since the Apple II, indeed I made some money writing games for it, and I love the present generation of Apple laptops and desktops. Mac OS is a joy to use. But I am worried about the direction Apple is taking with the iPad. Whilst I can understand major restrictions on apps on a phone, since in the end it is primarily a phone and so I really don’t want any apps to screw things up when I need to make a call, the iPad is more like a laptop, only better. Apple seem to be shaping up to treat the iPad the same way as the iPhone, and I do not believe this is appropriate. I don’t believe it is appropriate because I can see the iPad in future iterations taking over from the laptop. My wife, for example, could do all she needs to do on a computer on an iPad-like device. No problems.

Why, for God’s sake, should:

  • I only be able to add applications to it from the Apple store?
  • Apple get to be the sole arbiter of what applications I can run?
  • I not be able to use my iPhone to provide Internet access to my iPad when away from a Wi-Fi hotspot?
  • I not be able to view Flash websites if I choose to? SUre if it is so bad given me a way to turn Flash off but leave the decision up to me if I am willing to suffer shorter battery life, etc.
  • I have to break the license agreement and jailbreak the iPad to do some or all of the above?

If the iPad were given away and Apple made its money solely off the services I would have no issue with the above constraints. But when I am paying an amount of money that would buy me a full fledged and open laptop, then it is different matter.

I am very concerned about the censorship issue inherent in Apple’s sole control over apps. While many Americans seem to have an issue with nipples (which is their right), this is not a mental illness that affects the whole world or even all Americans. If apps contains content you don’t like, don’t load it and use it. Surely it is that simple. And if Apple want to look after the young kid market put in an app rating system and let parents (or schools) set a level lock on content. The problem with censorship is that one person’s send them to hell pornography is another person’s healthy content. Sure, there is consensus among anyone with a brain that child pornography is bad news, but even there as the fairly recent controversy here in Australia over the photographer Bill Henson shows, there is not universal agreement about where the line is to be drawn. Censorship is a dangerous and steep slope, as Australia is finding over the government’s net censorship approach. And so Apple would do well to step away from this dangerous area and treat its customers as grown ups who are capable of making their own decisions.

It was an American, I believe, who said I may hate what you have to say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it. As long as Apple is the only way to legally put apps on an iPhone or iPad, surely they are violating the 1st Amendment right to free speech? One of the few things I envy the Americans for is their constitution that is also a great aspirational document.

Apologies for the long, wandering post. Perhaps my current reading of Stephen King’s Under the Dome has made me cautious of what too much power in a few hands can do.