What the iPad can’t, and won’t, do

January 30, 2010

Like every other tech enthusiast, I’ve spent the last couple of months lapping up every little rumor surrounding the Apple tablet. The leaked photos and specs were enough to make any geek drool. And this week, the iSlate was finally coming.

The iSlate was going to revolutionize personal computing. It was the most important thing Steve Jobs had ever done.

After all the anticipation, though, we didn’t get the iSlate at all. Not even close. We didn’t get a revolutionary product. Hell, we didn’t even get an evolutionary product. We got…the iPad.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m sure the iPad runs well. It’s certainly slick and pretty, and I bet there are lots of Apple fanboys and coffeeshop hipsters who will line up to get these. I’ve read and heard these folks online, extolling the virtues of the iPad, and haughtily turning up their noses at the rest of us because, well, we just don’t have Steve’s vision of the future. “Just wait,” they say. “THIS is the future.” But here are a few things the iPad can’t and won’t do:

1. It can’t replace your computer. I have a desktop and a netbook. If my desktop were to mysteriously die, my netbook could get me through. I could hook it up to my external hard drives and access any data I need. I could even install iTunes and sync my iPod to it, so I could keep up with my podcasts. The iPad can’t do that. Which brings me to…

2. It can’t work on its own. You can’t use an iPad without a computer, because the iPad syncs to iTunes. You manage it just like an iPod — through a desktop or laptop machine. That fact renders moot the whole argument that this is the perfect personal computing device for youngsters or seniors who just don’t get technology. The iPad won’t have your music library on it if you haven’t put together a library first. But at least you can surf the net, right? Well…

3. It won’t deliver the whole Internet. I’ve had an iPod Touch for about a year. I love it. But there’s nothing more frustrating than the lack of Flash support. Some sites can’t be viewed at all, and the vast majority of video content online is out of reach. Jobs’ argument that the iPad will offer the best browsing experience ever would be laughable, if the reality weren’t so damned depressing. But hey, you can use it to keep in touch with friends and family, right?…

4. It doesn’t have a camera. I could see the iPad as a perfect Skype device. From the comfort of your couch, you could dial up Aunt Lucy and she could see what the baby was up to. It would be great for videoconferencing or broadcasting live to the web, the way you can with the iPhone. Unfortunately, there’s no camera. At all. Which basically limits you to communicating through e-mail. But at least you’ll be able to open attachments and edit documents and photos…

5. It doesn’t print. I’m guessing you could print from the iPad, but not out of the box. A search of the App Store shows a few printing applications available for the iPhone/iPod Touch, but they aren’t free. So you can edit that photo of Suzy, but if you actually want a print to hang on the wall, you’ll have to e-mail it to someone with a real computer or maybe save the photo to a USB drive or SD card, but…

6. It doesn’t have removable storage. Nope. No USB, no Micro SD, no anything. To get whatever you’ve done from the iPad to anywhere else, you can e-mail it or sync back to your PC. So maybe the iPad won’t let you be all that productive, but at least it will be the perfect entertainment pad…

7. There’s no HDMI out. Nope. You won’t be able to hook the iPad to your plasma and watch movies that way. You can only watch them on the iPad itself. Even the Zune HD can stream to your TV. If it’s video you’re looking for, you can definitely get anything you’re looking for online. Well, except…

8. Video stops at YouTube. You don’t get Hulu on the iPad. Or any other Flash-based video. Anything outside of YouTube is generally hit or miss. Once in awhile you’ll find mp4 videos to watch, but it’s a gamble. Even with these limitations, you say, it’s still pretty revolutionary, isn’t it?

9. It won’t change the world. The iPad isn’t even evolutionary. If anything, it’s a major step back — not just for personal computing, but for the tablet market in general. If you want to see a revolutionary product, look at Lenovo’s IdeaPad. It’s a tablet that runs a Linux hybrid OS on a Snapdragon processor. It’s got a slick UI. But the genius is that it plugs into a keyboard, becoming the monitor of a laptop. Once plugged in, it becomes a Windows 7 machine, running on an Intel chip. You cannot argue the iPad is a technological advancement compared to that. Let’s also not forget that the tablet is not an Apple invention; Microsoft has been trying to get tablet computers off the ground for decades now. Apple has tried it before. There is little “new” about the concept and nothing new about the execution.

Jobs and his loyal flock laughed at netbooks during the iPad launch. He said he believed there was space for the category of gadgets between the smart phone and the laptop; netbooks, he said, just don’t cut it. But my netbook can do everything listed above that the iPad can’t do (it even multitasks). Not only that, but it has double the storage capacity and cost me only $350.

I don’t hate Apple. I admire its attention to design, its marketing acumen and its ability to make people spend a lot of money on products they really don’t need. I admire its ability to create products like the iPhone that change the way people think about a class of products. But this time, Jobs and Apple are testing the limits of their reality distortion field. We have all learned to expect better from Apple. I’m disappointed that after all the hype, all the speculation, all the guesswork, we got a product that seems underpowered, rushed to market and not particularly well thought out.

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Snake Oil: Losing your money on SEO

October 12, 2009

As a web developer, nothing has been more frustrating over the years than talking to clients who’ve spent big bucks on SEO firms in hopes of raising their Google search rankings. The one that really sticks out in my mind is a client who spent several thousand dollars with an SEO firm for a report and recommendations for increasing her traffic; my job was to take several thousand dollars more of her money to implement those suggestions.

To be fair, many of the suggestions were solid: include meta-tags, use the right title tag, use alt-tags on your images, make sure your text includes your search terms. But added to those suggestions were several that just blew my mind. I won’t go into them, because it’s too tangential, but suffice to say they would have made the site unreadable for most visitors, and the text would clearly have been written for search engines instead of people.

For any business running a website, it’s heartbreaking to have a great product or service, only to find your traffic nonexistent and your search rank at the bottom of the pile. SEOs prey on that feeling of helplessness and, for a steep price, offer you hope. Unfortunately, if you read the fine print, they’ll admit they can’t promise you more traffic or — more importantly — conversions. And they shouldn’t.

Generally speaking, the companies with the best search rank are exactly who you’d expect them to be. They’re established businesses that already boast lots of traffic. In that way, the Internet as an ecosystem is no different than the actual business world. If I want to buy a computer, odds are the first places that will spring to mind are Best Buy or Dell or HP — not Chuck’s Computer Warehouse in Great Bend. Chuck’s been in business now for six months. He builds the machines in his basement, but uses substantially the same parts as the big boys. If Chuck wants to compete with the big boys, how does he do that? If he’s running a primarily Internet-based business, the temptation is to hire an SEO firm and get his site on the first page of Google search results for, say “buy a computer.” Right?

HP, Dell and Best Buy didn’t get where they are by SEO alone. They got there using tried-and-true advertising — print, television, radio, online. As power players, they’ve held quite a bit of authority over the computer sales market for a considerable amount of time. But if you search “buy a computer” on Google right now, HP and Best Buy don’t even show up on page 1. Instead, you get newegg.com, tigerdirect.com and a few others. Some of which I’ve never heard of, and would never send my money to. But that’s the company Chuck would be in with the help of an SEO. He may see a dramatic spike in traffic, but will it translate into sales?

SEO can’t sell a computer. Maybe it will drive traffic, but those numbers are false comfort; they’re often inflated and many of the “visits” you track are accidental or worse. You don’t want someone stumbling on your website; you want them heading there on purpose with the intent to buy.

I’d venture to guess that almost nobody visits the Dell website just to hang out. You visit when you’re ready to buy a computer. The same thing applies to Chuck. If he’s got a great search rank and lots of traffic but isn’t selling anything, the immediate reaction is that his deals aren’t good, right?

Not really. Chuck’s problem may be that his website looks unprofessional, and thus his business seems untrustworthy. Or it could just be that he isn’t getting the traffic he really needs: direct traffic from people who are ready to buy. There is only one way to get that traffic: Advertising.

Save the money you’d spend on SEO and put it into advertising. Carefully identify your target demographic and try different ways of reaching them. Create a real ad campaign that creates top-of-mind awareness for your company or product. Make sure it can’t be ignored (remember Head On? Yeah, apply directly to the forehead), and advertise in places you know your target demographic visits. Chuck needn’t worry about advertising in the local newspaper, but if he can afford an ad with C-NET, he might actually see some results. But if Chuck is only interested in selling to the local market, national ads are the exact wrong way to go. And Chuck must make sure to tell his story: What makes Chuck’s computers different or better than his competitors?

The bottom line is this: You want your site to be a destination. If customers aren’t thinking of you before they type in their search terms, seeing your name in their search results will not change their mind. Rather than focusing on visits from those who stumble across your site, focus on getting visitors who went there on purpose — with money in hand, ready to buy.


Sometimes the customer is wrong.

July 23, 2009

Up until a couple of hours ago, I respected Jeff Jarvis. I follow him on Twitter and read his buzzmachine.com posts. Like me, Jeff recognizes we all have the tools to be publishers. He’s a frequent critiic of those old dinosaurs in the print industry who fail to build value in their products but look for handouts to stay afloat.

Earlier this week, however, Jarvis started pumping out diatribes against his cable provider, Cablevision. I didn’t care, quite honestly, because I’m a Time Warner customer. I know little to nothing about Cablevision. Probably will never have to. Today, however, I became interested after hearing the story of therocco and ComcastBonnie…a disgruntled Comcast subscriber and the Comcast tech who tried to help him. I thought maybe I’d blog a bit about how badly therocco misinterpreted the situation (you can read therocco’s take at nerdofsteel.com) and decided to read up on Jarvis’s experience.

What I found was truly disheartening.

I’ll save you all the details (you can read them for yourself at buzzmachine.com). At first, I really felt for the guy. He says his Internet was out, and the cable company told him it would be three days before they’d get a tech to his house. Ouch, right?

So, Jarvis did what any reasonable person would do: mentions that he’s buddies with the head of the company (he is not). When the name-dropping doesn’t work (the Comcast employee called Jarvis’s bluff), Jarvis took to Twitter to bash Cablevision. And then he blogged about it.

Know what Jarvis did to everyone who stood up for the cable company? He checked their IP addresses. And berated them in his comments section. Because he’s Jeff Jarvis, and he can’t be wrong. Except he was wrong. Not only was he wrong, but he was lying.

In his blog, Jarvis states “they offer to send someone out … in three days.”

The ellipses hides a very important fact Jarvis left out: He was offered service the next day, and he turned it down (this according to a comment left by someone Jarvis identified as a Cablevision employee). They did not screw him by telling him to wait three days, as he led his readers to believe; the next day wasn’t good enough for Jeff Jarvis, who thought he was entitled to service NOW, dammit, because he has a blog!

So, when the powerful Jeff Jarvis turned down the next-day service, he was offered the next best thing: an appointment in three days.

Jarvis’s post is dishonest, and disrespectful to people who offered him help.

It also puts an enormous dent in Jarvis’s credibility when he lauds the truthfulness of online journalism; if the evangelists are liars, is the religion a sham?

Jeff, you owe your readers an apology. Anything less is demanding less of yourself than you do of your targets in the news industry.

The bigger point this leads to is the fallacy that the customer is always right. Because, sometimes, the customer is wrong. And sometimes (as in the cases of therocco and Mr. Jarvis) the customer is so hell-bent on getting things their way, that they completely lose sight of the idea that we should treat each other with at least a degree of respect. When that happens, you become a bad customer. And bad customers are bad for business.

Many companies keep lists of bad customers — people who call with unreasonable demands or become irate or insulting when things don’t go their way. And make no mistake: Those customers are treated differently. And not in a good way. That’s because they help destroy employee morale and take up valuable time and resources. They will mostly likely never be satisfied. In that case, it’s better to not do business with them at all.

I do believe companies should bend over backward to serve customers. But the fact that a person pays for a service — any service — does not entitle them to treat employees without dignity.

For more on this, check out this very well-done piece on why “The Customer is Always Right” is wrong.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis has a new, much more reasoned post on his blog, which you can find here. I give Jeff credit for listening, and for admitting there was more to the story.


Sorry. I can’t resist.

July 21, 2009

I have to start this off with a disclosure: I believe Apple products are good. I do not hate Apple.

With that out of the way, I’m going to point out, probably for that eight billionth time, that I hate the smug, self-righteous, unquestioning, unflinching and undying loyalty fanboys have for Apple products — attitude so well epitomized in the company’s “I’m a Mac” ads (you know, the ones where Macs are for the cool, hip people who zip through worry-free lives while PCs are for dorks and dweebs who either don’t know better or enjoy having useless machines).

Didn’t those ads at least seem effective? Did you ever fire up your PC — even once — and wonder why you hadn’t switched to Apple yet? I did. And the answer turned out to be really simple: I don’t want to be one of those people. The ones from that commercial. No thanks.

Microsoft has finally come back with a series of ads that hit Apple where it lives. They show people (actors) on budgets, challenged to find a computer with particular specs on a budget. Invariably, Apple machines don’t fit the bill. But there’s a PC that will — and the lucky actor usually has money to spare.

Apple is not happy about these ads. Not happy at all.

In fact, Apple dislikes the ads so much, its lawyers have demanded Microsoft pull them immediately.

It’s hard for Apple to make a case that the commercials are untrue — especially when their “I’m a Mac” ads are laden with exaggeration and tall tales. But it certainly appears that the ads are working. BrandIndex says Microsoft’s so-called value perception has risen steadily since the campaign began in March, while Apple’s has fallen.

Some of this value perception may have nothing at all to do with these ads. A year ago, carrying a cup of Starbucks (like owning a MacBook) was a status symbol. Today, it’s just seen as frivolity. If you don’t need to spend the money, don’t do it…

And sales figures aren’t looking any better.

Apple just fell from fourth place to fifth place in US computer sales, overtaken by Toshiba. That’s right, folks: Toshiba.

One would expect HP and Dell to lead that pack. And Acer (No. 3) has made a strong showing in the past couple of years — especially the second quarter of 2009, when its shipments increased 51 percent. Toshiba’s shipments were up nearly 34 percent. Apple’s shipments, by contrast, dropped 12.4 percent. And Apple’s market share? About 7.6 percent in the US. Under 5 percent worldwide.

This is a pretty clear case of Apple getting  exactly wha t it deserves. Its spin machine has created this whole idea that Apple products “just work” (ask me about my iPod Touch someday), that PCs just aren’t capable of artistic work and can’t be fun (uhhh…any Mac users doing much gaming these days?). As I’ve said before, the Apple team sells products based on claimed difficiencies of PCs, instead of on its own strengths. And now, finally, Microsoft has found a way to put forth the value question. And the answer, really, is quite simple.