Inside CES 2012: the Copycat Electronics Shitshow
January 9th, 2012
Daniel Eran Dilger
Mac users can be forgiven for thinking that the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show is essentially the PC version of what was once Macworld Expo. But that’s not really the case, here’s why.
CES is actually a preview aimed at electronics resellers, not consumers. That’s because the primary market for big electronics manufacturers outside of Apple is retailers, not consumers.
Apple once sold products to retailers, but things changed after the world shifted to Windows; Apple had to target end users directly, appealing to their needs and desires rather than the interests of resellers. That’s a subtle difference, but evident in every electronics market from mobile phones to personal computers to TVs.
Retailers want devices that are cheap and easy to sell. That means big numbered specs and lots of bullet point features. Your product doesn’t have Adobe Flash? No USB 3.0? No removable battery? No HDMI port? That’s not going to sell!
Unless, of course, you are Apple and selling it yourself. Apple creates its own weather in the tech market, defining features based on utility, usability and design in ways that simply aren’t compatible with the checklist of features used by everyone in the tech industry to compare products, from gadget blogs to Best Buy.
Finding facts to support fiction
Reading the work of PC enthusiasts trying to describe Apple is like listening to creationists try to describe the scientific method. They want to believe they are intellectual and understand things, but there’s simply certain things they desperately want to believe regardless of the facts and evidence available, which makes it impossible for them to see past their imaginary trees and recognize the reality that the verdant green forest they think surrounds and protects them simply doesn’t exist.
Now that Apple is demonstrably taking over the most valuable segments of tech markets ranging from PCs to smartphones to tablets to digital downloads, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to blow off the company and its achievements as an aberration of reality, a delusion of some cult of worshipers of a foreign god, outlying data that can be discarded because it only represents a few percentage points of market share.
We are now at the point where Apple has become, like the world’s scientific community, the norm that runs the world, while those wishing only for increasingly cheap access to megahertz and megabytes, who harbor contempt for clever design and the option of paying a premium for a finished, polished experience, are the backwater holdouts of an ideology that simply isn’t supported by the available facts.
A disastrous decade of descent for CES
CES is a revival for the PC faithful. Every year over the past decade, throngs of Windows enthusiasts lined up to hear Bill Gates and then Steve Ballmer deliver a rambling diatribe of where Microsoft would be leading the PC industry that year. Every year, that keynote grew increasingly irrelevant as Steve Jobs would deliver, in parallel or shortly afterward, his own vision for Apple at Macworld Expo.
A vision that would actually be implemented in a way that would actually shift the industry. A vision Microsoft would eventually follow several years later. Here’s a recap of how CES has proven to be a graveyard of Microsoftic milestones:
2000 – Microsoft appeared to be stomping the remains of Apple and its Macintosh into the ground as it announced initiatives to expand Windows everywhere, first with WebTV and Microsoft TV, and then to smartphones with its new role for WinCE (still two years out) and tablets with Tablet PC. Apple announced the PowerMac G4 Cube, previewed Mac OS X’s new Aqua interface, and debuted iTools, the beginnings of its cloud services it has never been credited for (and which were later renamed .Mac and then MobileMe).
2001 – Microsoft launched the initial Xbox, relaunches Microsoft TV as Ultimate TV, and coins “Windows Powered,” an umbrella term for various WinCE devices. It’s starting to look desperate and ineffective. Apple released its new Titanium PowerBook, iTunes, iDVD, and shows off Mac OS X 10.0. Steve Jobs introduces the Digital Hub, with the Mac in the center, attached to digital devices like MP3 players, mobile phones, PDAs, and DVD players via Apple software and hardware integration.
2002 – Microsoft launched Mira Windows Powered Smart Displays and Freestyle (which would become the Window Media Center PC). Where’s the Microsoft TV thing? and Where is its answer to the iPod that Apple released the previous fall? No matter, Apple releases the flat panel iMac G4, the 14 inch iBook, and the new iPhoto, giving Macs something else graphically intensive to do so users would need a faster one.
2003 – More Media Center PC, more Tablet PC, SPOT watches (remember that?) and a video-capable answer to the iPod with Media2Go, albeit delayed until the middle of 2004. Still no worthy iPod competitor, as its Windows Media DRM is still MIA. Apple launched 12 an 17 inch PowerBooks, Final Cut Express, its new Safari browser, Keynote, and the new iLife suite.
2004 – Microsoft rolled out Media Center Edition 2004, enabling users to recognize that the product had been updated, along with showing the Portable Media Center players it had introduced earlier but wouldn’t have ready for several more months. Tying the desktop monopoly to new mobile devices didn’t work, leaving a gaping hole for Apple to continue selling iPods to Windows users and making iTunes the default music player for PC users. Apple focused on its new Xserve, iPod mini, Finals Cut Express 2, and the new GarageBand included in iLife 04.
2005 – Microsoft gave up on specific product introductions, talking only about a nebulous new Digital Entertainment Anywhere initiative laced with new brand names, including PlaysForSure and Windows Media Connect. Bill Gates’ keynote suffers significant technical problems, but nobody cares because nobody is even listening anymore. Apple debuts the Mac Mini, iPod Shuffle, Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, Final Cut Express HD, Pages with Keynote 2 in iWork 05, and iMovie HD in iLife 05.
2006 – Microsoft unleashes Xbox 360, a money pit that would eventually break even after consuming around $8 billion of the company’s profits. It also relaunched Portable Media Center in an effort to take on the iPod, although it would subsequently abandon that ecosystem by the end of the year to go it alone with its new Zune device. Apple launches its Intel-based new MacBook Pro and iMac, Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger for Intel, iWork 06, and iWeb in iLife 06.
2007 – Microsoft launches Windows Vista and the Windows Home Server. Apple introduces Apple TV, AirPort Extreme with 802.11n, and of course, the iPhone, which sucks the oxygen from CES in an unprecedented way, leaving pundits and rival executives struggling for words.
2008 – Bill Gates announces his retirement from Microsoft. Apple launches Time Capsule, introduces new iOS updates, movie rentals in iTunes, Apple TV “take two” with HD rentals, and the ultra thin new MacBook Air, with an aluminum unibody construction that would trickle down into the rest of the MacBook line later that year.
2009 – Steve Ballmer took over Microsoft’s keynote, debuting Windows 7 with multitouch stuff that never materialized. Palm takes over the show with the new webOS Pre, which it says will trash the iPhone. On Apple’s side, Phil Schiller took over for Jobs, presenting new iLife’s new geotagging and face recognition in iPhoto and new Learn to Play lessons in GarageBand. An update to iWork was paired with new cloud collaboration features in iWork.com. Apple also launched the new unibody 17 inch MacBook Pro with an integrated battery design, completing the transformation of the MacBook line.
The only break CES and its attendees got from this annual cycle of humiliation was when Apple announced that the trade show was now now obsolete, and wouldn’t be exhibiting at Macworld anymore. Even since then, Apple has managed to derail Microsoft’s feeble attempts to lead the PC faithful, in 2010 with its iPad Apple Event and last year with a double whammy the Mac App Store event and then an iPad 2 introduction.
2010 – Microsoft rushes Slate PC to market in an attempt to head off the rumored Apple tablet. Shortly after CES, Google builds upon Verizon’s Droid inertia with the release of its Nexus One. Apple doesn’t participate in Macworld Expo, but does reveal the iPad, which shuts Slate PC out into the cold and delays competitors’ plans as they scramble to catch up in sophistication and in price.
2011 – Microsoft talks about the future of Windows PCs, tablets and smartphones, offering so little that Apple can hijack the entire event with nothing more than the announcement of the Mac App Store. Then Apple dropped the iPad 2.
Google inherits Microsoft’s CES Curse
Last year’s CES began looking for a replacement for Microsoft, with the mainstream media gushing about Google’s Android 3.0 Honeycomb and how it would usurp Microsoft (and of course Apple) in leading the industry. The media politely focused on Honeycomb tablets because Google had asked that nobody talk about or show off the disaster surrounding Android’s failed launch of Google TV a few months earlier.
Hilariously, Google led the industry by following in the grandiosely arrogant footsteps of Gates and Ballmer. No need for humility when taking on Apple, because Google knows that all it has to do is license its platform broadly; hardware makers will take over and deliver innovation the same way they did under Windows… and Windows Mobile, and Windows Media/PlaysForSure, and Windows 7 Slate PC.
This year, Microsoft and Google are jockeying for attention as the Anti-Apple, with one promoting a dead platform that failed to take off last year, and the other doing the same.
Meanwhile, back in reality
This year, Apple has iPad 3 in the wings, along with what appears to be a killer app for it: a new development regarding iBooks that appears to target textbooks and education, something that promises to wed the iPad to school buyers even tighter than the Mac OS has been linked to education since the late 80s.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “aren’t all books literally ‘textbooks’?” Well yes, but one of the core problems with education in America is that first, “textbooks” exist as a ridiculously expensive component of higher ed that simply involves too much paper and weight compared to the slight bit of value they contain, and secondly, there is a cabal that keeps textbooks from flirting too closely with offering American children access to a rational, scientific education.
A textbook drive by Apple to create an open market for digital educational content in the pattern of iTunes music and App Store software is an obvious and natural development. Conversely, it’s something that neither Microsoft nor Google nor Samsung nor anyone else in the tech industry has the drive, the gumption, the vision nor the capability to deliver.
Microsoft and Google take on Apple
All the companies exhibiting at CES know how to do is to produce devices with similar or slightly better hardware specs to those that are already selling, and to license software from Microsoft or Google that gives them a checklist of features the purport to approximate the functionality of whatever Apple is designing. That’s actually quite sad.
It’s almost as sad as if there were only one university on earth teaching science, and every other school simply kept busy churning out Spartan warriors that feverishly believed in the pantheon of gods, and the Spartan warriors they were producing were all being programmed to see it as their mission to kill all the scientists they crossed paths with, lest intellectual, rational thinking might end up evaporating away their own notion of heaven and their cherished gods along with it.
The fans cheering along Samsung as it builds disposable, expensive iPhone clones aren’t doing so because Samsung is building great products. It’s simply because they don’t think Apple deserves the success it has created for itself, and that they don’t understand that the value Apple created in the iPhone wasn’t in assembling chips together with a certain amount of RAM while forgetting to include enough megahertz and arrogantly insisting that users not watch YouTube videos via a Flash plugin.
So there you have it: there is a rational, simple explanation for why the tech industry is failing in comparison to Apple, and why no amount of spin and pseudo-scientific rationalization will turn delusion into reality. What needs to happen is that the greater industry adopt the approach of Apple, not just continue their individual ideas of how to copy Apple in a non-Apple way. Because that clearly isn’t working.
What if Apple goes bad?
Pessimistically, one might say that the worst case scenario for the future would be that Apple is in danger of forgetting what makes it unique and valuable, and could start doing the same things that have turned Palm and HP and Nokia and RIM and Microsoft from winning leaders to lost losers.
At the same time, there’s reason to believe that Apple now knows how to keep itself true to the vision of Jobs. The reason for that optimism is that Apple has clearly articulated what makes it work. It’s no mystery: Apple is a company driven by people who are building the things they want to use, rather than simply being a corporation collectively looking at the market and trying to determine how it can make products that people are already buying a little faster, cheaper and more attractive to buyers. That’s simply the definition of Samsung.
Apple has successfully maintained the same outlook as a group of master brewers or bakers who are passionate about making great tasting beer or bread. Samsung and its CES ilk are like the food conglomerates who make food-like products using such innovations as carbonation to artificially deliver frothy malt-flavored beverages and loaf-shaped units of white foam. They don’t see a difference.
No amount of marketing will convert people who have tasted real food from resorting back to corporate pseudo-food, at least not the population interested in health, taste or quality, which heavily overlaps the population that isn’t extremely price sensitive and is willing to pay a premium for better quality products.
Major CES exhibitors know they want that premium, they just haven’t realized they need to adjust what they’re doing if they want to stop continuing down the same path of failure and start earning it.