The Northern Spy: Jobs' legacy, some Apple quibbles, more
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The Northern Spy: Jobs' legacy, some Apple quibbles, more

By Rick Sutcliffe

Prescience was not foreseen by the Spy when he titled last month's column, but said monicker now seems faintly evocative of a sad prophecy. The iCEO has not merely stepped down, he's left us altogether. 

Steve Jobs' legacy sees us all materially wealthier, for he had a unique talent for putting his finger on the pulse of the market two or three years down the road, then inventing the product to create the market his mind's eye saw. When the history of our time is written, Steve Jobs' name will be far more prominent than any of the politicians whose images and dulcet tones saturate the daily media, more lasting than any entertainment idol, have more footnotes and records than any athlete. Jobs was unique. He passes to the next life to no one's benefit and everyone's regret.

Meanwhile, back at the iCompany, business carries on and will carry on for years to come much as it has in the past. The workaholic culture of excellence in innovation, of creative iconoclasty, of compelling marketing is deeply ingrained at Apple, and the company is by this time as much the child of iTim as it was that of iSteve. Apple has seized the wheel of the technology bus, rendering everyone else in the business a passenger or a chaser, waiting to see what the company disgorges into its marketplace at the next stop before doing anything.

Computers, smart phones, pad devices, operating systems, software, and soon also television -- all are beholden to Apple for leadership. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it sees to the Spy a pity that there has been so little innovation elsewhere these last few decades, and little either on the horizon. Can that entire market sector do nothing else but react and imitate? It seems not.

Indeed, though the Spy does not present himself as a financial analyst, the little dip in the company's stock at Jobs' death seems already past, and given earnings growth, the shares even appear undervalued, though at $400, or $40 000 for a standard 100-share block, AAPL is not for the small investor.

The Spy does have a few quibbles, however, with iCupertino. The commoditization of computer parts and the movement of manufacturing offshore seems to have contributed to quality issues of a kind once foreign to Apple. Drives, motherboards and power supplies fail more often these days--not as quickly by any means as the typical junkyard-assembled generic PC with the fancy brand name--but the trend does cast a cloud, and the Spy is no longer confident that a new Mac would outlast a new PC by two or three times as it would in the past.

Also, he has recently had a go-round with Apple support that left him breathless with ... well, judge for yourself.

The Spy, who was a registered Apple developer back in the late seventies when he wrote software in 6502 assembler, has for many years now had what is today called an AppleID. But it was set up long ago, and is not an email address. However, iOS5 updates, among other things, require this. Time to clean up this little anomaly, and at the same time disentangle personal Apple business from the university -- for he brought the Apple Developer account to it rather than vice-versa, and TWU should have its own ID in the system. So, first he set up another account for the U, then changed the address on the old one. The ID system then sent out verification emails, each with a clickable link. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the URLs on those links were munged, rendering them unusable.

After threading his way through several "support" pages, he figured out how to get a ticket opened, and described the problem in exhaustive detail. As advertised, within 48 hours an answer came back, but merely telling him how to submit a ticket on a different page. He followed instructions, repeating his explanation, only to how to get a weakly worded explanation of how to have the system send out a verification email, which he knew, and was not the problem. Right, a complete misunderstanding of where the difficulty was, so he returned another explanation, to a similar result from a different agent, also in weak English.

Now the Spy runs his own mail server, so it occurred to him to go into that server, fire up Mailwatch, look at the messages as they existed there, click on the link, and make it work. All addresses verified OK. That's good, right? Unfortunately, the next mail back, from yet another agent, though in much better English, still only instructed him to resend the verification mail. Ah, folks. Sending it was not the issue. The contents not playing nice with mail was the problem.

Meanwhile, the Spy had moved on to attempting to have the AppleID changed to match what was now the primary and verified email address, but that also failed. The "submit" button ostensibly accepted the change, but did nothing with it, and returned no error. In any case, the ID could not be changed, even though there was a button specifically for reconciling it with the address.

So, back went another message to the support centre. This time he was told in better English still that the address he was trying to use was attached to some other account, not associated with iTunes, and with instructions on how to find the AppleID for that (theoretical) account so it could be changed if desired. But said page also required one's exact name and address, which he supplied, but to no avail. Seems to the Spy, neophyte that he is, that if one knew that much info about an account one would not need to find whether it existed. As any rate, no such account could be found, not even the one that now had that very address as primary.

Meanwhile, he discovered several discussions on Apple Support groups to the effect that numerous others had exactly the same problem -- inability to change old, non-email IDs to new email-based ones, and the purported button to do so inoperative. Some had gotten caught halfway through an IOS 5 upgrade by the demand for an email-based ID, and their phones were bricked.

Somebody ought to know something. Back went another message to Apple Support. The next reply arrived from yet another agent, saying "I'm sorry but I was unable to determine the nature of your inquiry based on the information you have provided," and asking for more detail -- this despite that the entire chain of mail was in the message. The Spy has reworded his already lengthy explanations, confining the issues to three: the inability to change the ID, to locate any other account with the same address, and their inability to understand and communicate in a consistent way. He has asked that a supervisor take over the case. That's it at press time after over a week of back and forth. More on the saga later.

Turning to other near death experiences, though the Spy hastens to point out that he does not celebrate Oct 31, preferring instead the Dec version of that number, he notes that HP, under a freshly minted CEO, has changed course yet again and "committed" itself to retaining its PC division. Pardon me? First you say you're going out of a business, then that you are staying in it? The only way the latter can now happen is if the vast majority of potential customers missed both news items. Those in the know will surely take their business elsewhere.

Meanwhile, beleaguered RIM suffered a near death experience of its own this past month, it's high-reputation network having collapsed for several days. Those single-point-of-failure designs always come back to bite, and once they do, their appetite becomes insatiable.

Kodak is another interesting case. The company is frantically trying to reinvent itself as a too-late entry into the digital world. (Does anyone remember film?) To make their mark in the printer business (really the ink business) the company needs cash, and lots of it. Their only ready source is a trove of over a thousand digital patents. Given the hoard of buyers for IP these days, an auction should bring at least $2B and possibly as much as $4.5B, depending on whether Google and Apple go head to head, or Samsung makes it a three way battle.

Old electronics stalwart Panasonic appears to be yet another potential basket case. Losing money by the billions, the once prosperous Japanese firm seems, like Sony, to have lost its way in an increasingly low margin and cutthroat consumer electronics market, from which quicksand there is no obvious exit.

A modest proposal seems in order, and in the tradition of both Jonathan Swift and the season, it may seem somewhat ghoulish, feeding as it does on the undead. But iTim has the same brashness as iSteve, so why not suggest it?

Given that Apple is now the unquestioned innovation, idea, and technology leader, not to mention the largest company in the world outside the oil industry (and catching up to the last holdout there too), and that a significant takeover might not go well with the anti-trust people, perhaps it is time to revisit the policy on OS and hardware licensing. When this was last attempted, it was from a position of weakness, the partners insignificant, and the whole affair didn’t go well.

Now, licensing would be from a position of strength. Apple could dictate the terms and could pick partners with solid past credentials, some brand recognition, assets to bring to the table, and good sales networks, yet a tinge of desperation for the future.

So, why not license iOS to RIM and Samsung and also MacOS and hardware rights to HP in return for access to all their patents, dropping any and all suits, and agreeing to exclusivity--they cease making Android and generic PCs and make only Apple-compatible hardware. Once the agreements are up and running, Apple's OS share could nearly double in both markets, and they could sell the same deal to Nokia, Sony, Lenovo, and (gulp) Dell, doubling it again. The end of the story is the end of the Windows-only PC, and the cheap imitation knock-off OS it is forced to run (or walk).

This lacks the satirical cachet of Swift, for it smacks more of eating the old, but it certainly makes up for that in depths of irony. Apple could offer some cash inducements in the form of a modest stock purchase to generate capital for the changeover and retooling, but on the whole, such a pre-emptive strike would cost very little, and be a low risk strategy. Moreover, it would not only likely double, then quadruple market share, it would bring about the death of the PC much more quickly than merely allowing events to proceed slowly to their logical conclusion as they are now.

Moreover, several decent companies whose only error has been to harrowingly hitch their wagon to the wrong tractor, one that can but keep repeatedly plowing the same field, would not only be saved from the scrap heap, but thrive. It would also put a whole townfull of patent lawyers out of work, and that alone might be worth taking the trouble, for it would add mightily to everyone else's bottom line.

Hey, no use asking WWSD (what would Steve do) on this one, for such a dramatic policy reversal, if to the end of striking at the heart of Google and MS simultaneously, would at least tempt, if not intrigue him. And, today's best thinking is often yesterday's worse, but thought different. May Android and Windows rest in peace.

And while he'd offering free advice, why not swap the right to make a Kodak branded iOS device for those juicy patents? Like it or not, Apple is in the point and shoot camera market now, so what better partner? Well, Canon might be, but the cachet of an old name .... For that matter, if iTim wants into the TV market, why not make a deal with Panasonic for jointly branded consumer electronics of all kinds? Hey, an audiophile quality receiver/amplifier with an iPod built in would appeal to some, just as well as a big screen TV with an iOS interface, and there might be more kilometrage in a joint project with a firm having expertise in the field, and a tinge of desperation.

On more significant near-deaths, the Spy notes that European politicians, their backs to the wall, their economic engines running low on gas, have touted yet another band-aid for sick man of Europe, Greece. The fifty percent haircut doled out to bondholders will still leave that nation's debt at an impossible-to-pay roughly 120% of GDP, and will be regarded by ratings agencies as a default. (Contrast Canada where the same ratio is in the 30-55% range, and still thought to be too high, then worry about the US where it is in the 75-95% range, and Japan's where it may be 200%--the exact figures varying by source, methodology, and terminology.)

Face it. TANSTAAFL has caught up with the Greek people. The free ride is over. The country is bankrupt, and has zero prospect of ever retiring its accumulated debt. Why not just say so and be done with it? Why not just let a few banks fail with the country, boot Greece from the Euro until it gets its act together, put up with the resulting dislocations, get on with it, and get over with it?

Interestingly, that nation's total borrowings amount to about $400B, in the same ballpark as Apple's market cap. One could fantasize Apple might buy a couple of modest sized chunks of zombied Greece for old-world manufacturing locations and executive retreats. But the neighbourhood has gotten run down, the really interesting buildings are all ruins, the bill collectors, stiffed once, will soon circle again, and the local character set isn't even ASCII. On second thought.....

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level.

He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

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