Apple make something bad? Say it ain’t so

I’d just like to say right off the top that I like Apple a lot, and they make some great products – in fact, product design and marketing are really the company’s stand-out skills in many ways, I think. But given the obsessive, almost fetishistic, love that some geeks have for Apple and anything that comes out of the head office in Cupertino or out of Steve Jobs’ mouth, it’s nice to see them fall flat now and then too. And as far as I can tell they have done just that with the Hi-Fi accessory for the iPod.

Yes, it has the iconic Apple white sheen, but even with the iPod attached to the top it’s still just a giant, squarish speaker box. As more than one person has pointed out, it makes no sense as a “boombox,” even if people still wanted such a thing, since it has no radio, no CD player and if you tried to carry it your iPod would fall off. Here’s a selection of comments from the more than 200 that are attached to a post on the new product at Engadget – more than 90 per cent of which I would say are negative. And remember that these are from gadget lovers:

“Umm… I’m not sure it’s large enough. I mean, make it 2, maybe 3 times bigger and it could also replace my sofa.”

“How can this bring music to the masses. It is expensive, large, and ugly. Disappointing…”

“Watch as Apple’s design team hits a boombox with an ugly-stick. only $349 per ticket!!!”

“This is the dumbest idea ever.”

“I am a total mac fanboy and this made me die on the inside.”

“Wow, hideous. Absolutely terrible. Looks like a toaster oven.”

And what about the Mac Mini with the souped-up processor and digital outputs – a glimpse of the much-anticipated Apple digital entertainment hub? Definitely closer than the first version, since it now has enough guts to be a media server, and has DVI and digital audio outs as well as Front Row – but Thomas Hawk makes a good point: it’s missing PVR functionality, which would easily make it a killer product. But let’s put it this way – it’s a heck of a lot better than that gigantic monstrosity called the iPod Hi-Fi.

Maps, satellite photos and Grand Theft Stupid

I’m going to go out on a limb here and disagree with Mike Arrington, who calls the new Microsoft Live Local street-level photo thingamajig a “killer” in one of his typically breathless posts on TechCrunch, in which he says it will help Microsoft’s Live.com continue to “crush” others in the Web 2.0 portal game. I tend to agree with David Galbraith, who suggests quite succinctly that the drive-by map feature is total bollocks and that the Microsoft team have “lost the plot.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The interface, as David points out, is ridiculous – a cheesy, video-game style rendering of a car’s cockpit, which you can switch from a regular car to a race car (complete with fire extinguisher). Quirky and fun? Maybe. I would add “stupid and useless” to that list as well though. As one commenter noted on TechCrunch, “not sure what use I would have for something like this.” A fair point. Not to mention, of course, that Amazon’s A9 launched a similar street-level photo feature about six months ago. True, it doesn’t let you “drive” your virtual “car” down the streets, but I actually see that as a positive rather than a negative.

Now if Microsoft could somehow add virtual people to the streets and let you mow them down like in Grand Theft Auto or Carmaggedon – that would be cool. After all, it is called a “street-side drive-by.” But it would still be useless for mapping or finding your way anywhere.

An online memory-retention service

I got an email from a company called WisdomArk today, with an invitation to try out an “alpha” service they’re testing called MemoryArk – I must have signed up for more info, which is something I do with almost every alpha or beta I hear about (I’m easily bored). The offer was for a free “premium” account for the rest of 2006 with the service, which the company says is regularly $39 (U.S.) – and if I write six posts, upload two images and invite five people to use the service, it says I “could qualify” to get the premium membership extended for life.

MemoryArk seems to want to act as an online memory-retention system for families, a way of keeping track of all those stories your grandfather tells about the war, or your mom tells about when she first met your dad, or whatever. When you set up an account (here’s a screenshot of my account page), it asks you to either answer several questions about yourself or come up with questions to ask an “interviewee” such as a family member. If you choose yourself, then it asks you to write about your first memory, your first kiss and similar key events.

One interesting feature is that when you’re posting them, it offers you the chance to search for key words in Yahoo Photos, and then attach one to your memory. The post then appears on a blog-style page, but also appears as a link on a time-line of dates, with the image coming up when you hover over the entry. I’m not sure what I think about the service yet, because I haven’t really played with it that much, but it’s an ineresting idea.

But will people pay the kind of money that MemoryArk wants them to? I’m not sure. The idea of an online repository for memories, a way of keeping track and sharing those family stories with others, definitely appeals to me (what can I say – I’m getting old), but I don’t know if it’s a business you can charge up front for. Why not sell people disk storage space for their photos and other files they want to save? Or sell ads (which the site appears to already be doing) and other related services like photo-book printing?

Google investors get another gut check

Those Google guys — they’re a nice bunch, and smart as all get out, but when it comes to dealing with investors they could probably use a few tips. For example, when your stock is selling for more than 80 times earnings, and you have a market value of over $110-billion (U.S.), don’t use the words “growth is slowing.” Ever. Why? Because then your share price will get creamed, as Google’s did on Tuesday, when chief financial officer George Reyes did exactly that at a Merrill Lynch conference on Internet advertising (which accounts for about 90 per cent of Google’s revenue).

Specifically, the Google executive was quoted by CNBC as saying: “Growth is slowing and now largely organic… the search monetization gains have now been largely realized.” Did he say that the company was going down the tubes? No. But when you’re growing as quickly as Google has been — and your stock is predicated on that growth continuing — admitting that growth is slowing down even a little is tantamount to yelling “Sell!” Which is what investors did: Google was down by more than $50 or about 13 per cent in early trading, which wiped about $14.5-billion off the company’s market capitalization in a matter of hours (former analyst and tech-stock lightning rod Henry Blodget has more here and also here).

By mid-afternoon, the stock had rebounded to trade at $373, which meant it was only down by about 4.5 per cent from Monday’s close — but clearly some investors were rattled. It’s been a tough couple of months for the search kingpin: although Google’s stock price has come back from its lows of a couple of weeks ago, it is still down by more than 20 per cent from its peak of $475 earlier this year. And Mr. Reyes’ comments didn’t help the rest of the Internet sector either — shares of Amazon, Yahoo and eBay were all down as well on Tuesday.

While the Google exec’s comments may not have been news (at least not to anyone who looked at the company’s financial results from the most recent quarter) they seem to have come as a surprise to some investors. And they could make them increasingly nervous about the stock going forward. As my friend Paul Kedrosky notes, it’s not so much that Google doesn’t give guidance, it’s that they suck at it.

Public service notice: Toronto blogger meetup

A short public-service notice for anyone who is planning to attent the bloggers’ meetup with Shel Israel (co-author of Naked Conversations) in Toronto on March 6th – Alec Saunders notes that the venue has changed. It was supposed to be the Peel Pub, but that venerable bar is no more and has been replaced by Filthy Mcnasty’s – who are apparently so McNasty that they don’t return phone calls. The new venue is Shoeless Joe’s on King Street east of Spadina. A map is here (Alec used Mapquest, but as anyone who has seen the Lazy Sunday video knows, Google Maps is the best – double true)