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Stewart Wolpin


Stewart Wolpin has been writing about consumer electronics for more than 30 years and has attended more than 40 CESs (there used to be a summer show in Chicago). He is a judge for the Consumer Electronics Association Hall of Fame and writes the bios of the electees. He also has written on small stakes poker ("The Rules of Neighborhood Poker") and baseball ("Bums No More: The Championship Season of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers").

Barnes & Noble thinks you'll spend $50 more to buy its new Nook Tablet rather than Amazon's Fire, both of which go on sale sometime next week. Apparently B&N also believes the original Nook Color is equal to the Amazon Fire now that both are priced at $199. I think Barnes & Noble has lost its mind. Does B&N realize that for us to choose the Tablet over the Fire it had to either blow us away product-wise (it didn't), at least match Amazon Fire's price (it didn't), or come up with a completely different value proposition (it didn't)? Instead, Barnes & Noble figures to fight Fire with, literally, flash. Allow me to douse Tablet's not so flaming advantage.
Like the prize inside a Crackerjacks or kids' cereal box, Siri, Apple's voice-controlled digital assistant, is the raison d'être for buying an iPhone 4S, especially if you already own a 4. A cult of personality has already arisen around Siri. Numerous bloggers have cited her snappy answers to stupid questions, such as "What are you wearing?" "Where can I hide a body?" "Open the pod bay doors," "Will you marry me?" "What are you wearing?" etc. But I hope you aren't thinking of buying an 4S just to get a really fancy Magic 8 Ball. Siri does a lot more than wittily answer esoteric questions. She could represent the first true user interface paradigm shift since the iPhone and its capacitive touchscreen, and perhaps since the Mac and the Graphical User Interface 27 years ago. And like any paradigm shift, Siri will change how you behave, and introduce a whole new set of social rules of engagement.
Today has been proclaimed Black Turtleneck Friday as an homage to Steve Jobs, timed to coincide with today's launch of the iPhone 4S. I've washed my black turtleneck and am wearing it as I test the 4S. Silly, perhaps, but it's my way, our way, a way, to acknowledge our appreciation and respect. I'm not the only one who feels we've lost a singular presence in our world. Jobs' visage graces the covers of nearly every major national periodical — Time, Newsweek, Bloomberg Business Week, Fortune, The Economist, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, even People, somewhat ironic considered how guarded Jobs was about his personal life. I can't remember the last time a non-politician or non-performer garnered such widespread regard from the news and business press. But the world has a short attention span. Jobs is venerated today, but fickle history will be the final judge of Jobs' memory.
Editor's Note: With respect to Steve Jobs, we'd like to be clear that this post was written before his death. The criticism here would not change, but there are no parallels between Stewart's take on the iPhone 4S and what's happened. As I mentioned I might be when last I bloviated about the new, then-pending iPhone: Disa-POINT-ed. I've GOT an iPhone 4. I don't WANT another iPhone 4. I've waited patiently for 18 months, a third longer than necessary, just to be told I can get ANOTHER iPhone 4? Seriously, a 3.5-inch screen? That's practically a peep hole compared to today's Android phones, which all seem to have 4-inch screens, and the Galaxy S II models from Sprint and upcoming from T-Mobile have 4.52-inch screens — that's more than an inch larger than iPhone 4S's suddenly dwarfish display. And you're trying to tell me I won't be able to tell the difference between 3G 14.4 Mbps EV-DO or HSPA and HSPA+, LTE or WiMAX? Really? Sure, and Charley Parker and Kenny G? Both saxophonists, no difference. And we're supposed to seduced by Siri? She looks and sounds clever, but all I can think about is Skynet, and I get the sense I'll feel and look as silly talking to my iPhone as Scotty did in Star Trek IV talking to a Mac through the mouse. "Computer?" Now, if Siri had Majel Barrett's voice… All I can say is, horse pettuties. Okay, all I can say that is printable. So is there anything good about the iPhone 4S? Yeah, a couple of things.
Ali v. Frazier? Federer v. Nadal? Yanks v. Red Sox? None of these epic sporting confrontations can compete with the upcoming struggle between Apple and Amazon. As you may know, Amazon announced its long-rumored, long-awaited, long-delayed Android Kindle tablet/e-reader, the Kindle Fire, which will go on sale November 15. Next week, Apple will announce it's long-rumored, long-awaited, long-delayed iPhone 5, likely to go on sale around October 13 or 14. Of course, this battle of behemoths isn't between the Fire and the iPhone, but between the Fire and the iPad. Or at least that's how many in both the tech and media in general present it. But Kindle Fire v. iPad will not be the titanic struggle folks think it will be. Fire will claim a far different victim.
Sniff! Sniff! I smell failure. Tech failure. I smell — sniff, sniff — the picture fading at Kodak. BlackBerry fans ready to don black. Acer about to be broken. Motorola's cellphone business filled with static. Digg digging its own grave. Netflix jettisoning its DVD business from the streaming ship. While this picture is admittedly overly grim, I know a little about tech flameouts — I was part of two of them. One was as an owner/founder of E/Town, a one-time competitor with CNET, but which died from a number of ills on Valentine's Day 2001; another was as sports editor (a former life) for WOW!, Compuserve's ill-advised Prodigy-like online family service, in 1996. (More on Prodigy in a bit.) In the meantime, you could fill Arlington many times over with the number of companies that have flopped spectacularly, many way too soon. I'm not going to examine the whys, though one could easily fire off a half dozen common causes for tech company collapses: over-expansion too soon misguided "improvements" or changes founder CEOs ill-equipped to manage a large company an established company unable to adapt to new technologies or too big to compete with agile new competitors a product produced either before its time or too late the loss of a charismatic founder Here are some sad stories of a few of my own "favorite" — used bittersweet — tech flops whose demises I've covered in the past.
Snoopy once sagely observed that "the anticipation far exceeded the actual event." From all indications, the beagle's cynical view is likely to describe the reaction of the digital cognoscenti when the iPhone 5 appears about a month from now. Indications are, iPhone 5 will actually be more an iPhone 4S, a minor upgrade in screen size, antenna and design, with few significant improvements. And probably no 4G. Which means the next iteration of the iPhone, once the technological master of the smart phone universe, is likely to be nowhere near the top of the today's most innovative phones. Yet we'll be treated to the usual Apple hoopla and subsequent huge sales, perhaps huger than any iPhone before it. How huger? An RBC/Changewave survey has found 31 percent of respondents either "very likely" or "somewhat likely" to buy an iPhone 5, five percent more than a similar survey preceding the introduction of the then highly-anticipated iPhone 4 more than a year ago. It seems Apple has discovered an interesting phenomena: iPhone not only doesn't have to be cutting edge, it's better if it isn't.
So let me get this straight. Company A patents a technology. Company S uses this technology. Company A sues Company S for co-opting its patents, and the courts (so far) agree — and Company A is the bad guy? Yes, I'm talking about what happened at IFA last week. Even though I was at IFA, I missed Samsung removing all evidence of the existence of its just-announced Galaxy Tab 7.7 after a Dusseldorf district court granted Apple's injunction like Josef Stalin removed Leon Trotsky (amongst others) from all Soviet history. I was busy touring the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, then wandering around historic Potsdam, thinking all the action at the Messe Berlin fairgrounds was kaput. Oops. Yet, when my compatriot Michael Trei passed along the report of Samsung's embarrassment from my fellow IFA traveler Chris Davies of SlashGear, who obviously stayed on the job over the weekend (show-off), he was flamed by many who called Apple a bully because they saw Apple's multi-touch patents akin to patenting a wave of your hand. Sorry, Apple-haters. Not only are you objectively and demonstrably wrong, you're wrong at the top of your voice. Apple may well be a bully in a host of business dealings (and it is), but multi-touch technology — in fact, ALL simple-looking technology — is a mite more complicated than your dismissive gesture of flipping the bird at Apple.
Many companies show off outlandish technologies at trade shows just to get attention, and I guess I fell victim to the ploy. Maybe you would, too: Sharp showed an 8k4k HDTV — that's an 85-inch, 7680-by-4320-pixel display — 16 times...