Apple, Microsoft make mediocre moves

rotten apple

I never thought I would see the day when Apple and Microsoft, perhaps the two biggest rivals in the computing industry, would disappoint me so much in a single week.

As I write this, I have just finished watching the Apple keynote speech from their Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), which takes place this week in sunny San Francisco. But if you’re going there, don’t plan on putting any flowers in your hair for acting CEO Phil Schiller.

Instead, you might just want to pack a whole lot of NoDoz. Schiller’s keynote was a 2-hour snore fest. His droning, rehearsed style and palpable discomfort on-stage did little to spice up the dreary dribble of announcements Apple put forward on Monday.

To make matters worse, Schiller was not the sole presenter. The keynote suffered a classic case of too-many-cooks syndrome as VPs, CEOs, Directors and a local rock star played musical chairs with the presentation, demonstrating applications and features related to the new iPhone OS 3.0. Failed demos and flubbed lines abounded. At times it was truly painful to watch.

The products themselves hardly made up for all these gaffes. Aside from a slightly faster iPhone with turn-by-turn navigation, copy/paste and some other assorted features that should’ve been in the device from the beginning, the announcements were largely underwhelming.

Apple announced an Intel-optimized OS X named Snow Leopard and an upgraded MacBook Pro line alongside the new iPhone 3GS. These were predictable, safe, dull moves. The presenters pulled out every adjective they could to gloss over the mediocrity, but it amounted to little more than strained hyperbole.

I sat there shaking my head in disbelief as I realized I had just witnessed possibly the most disheartening Apple keynote in recent memory. Three years ago, Steve Jobs introduced the adoption of Intel chips in Apple machines, a move that would send their market share soaring. A year later he walked up on stage and announced the phone that would change the mobile world forever.

Apple has not announced a truly revolutionary new product or initiative since then. Steve Jobs is now dying of cancer and the company seems to have lost its feverish motivation, its passion for groundbreaking innovation, its talent for consistently leading the world into the future of computing.

It’s not that the iPhone 3GS, Snow Leopard, or iPhone OS 3.0 are not logical evolutions of their predecessors, the problem is that’s all they are. Apple has fallen into that dangerous rut of coasting on its own success.

The iPhone is huge, no doubt about it. But it will not remain huge forever. Nokia, Google, and even Palm are playing a mean game of catch-up while Apple seems content living off the revenue from the thousand and one inane iPhone games and farting apps available through the iTunes Store.

Apple is hardly alone in the disappointing announcements department this month. Microsoft recently slapped a new coat of paint on their MSN/Live Search website, rebranding it as “Bing” with a $100 million marketing campaign that included a live launch extravaganza on Hulu called “Bingathon.” I stopped watching it after the first five minutes.

Cable celebrity endorsement and clever TV ads can hardly make up for the fact that the engine is still vastly inferior to Google when it comes to search results. A BlindSearch comparison of Google, Yahoo! and Bing has confirmed that users still find Google results more helpful, even when they don’t know they’re Google’s. Microsoft is simply throwing cash down the “tubes,” as it were.

Microsoft is also playing it safe OS-wise with its latest release, Windows 7. The minor upgrade is essentially what Windows Vista should’ve been. I’ve used it on my Mac for months and I can easily say it’s the best Windows ever. But it is also too little, too late. The Vista stigma still hangs over the computing world and there are no guarantees yet that Microsoft will make 7 affordable enough to compensate.

Maybe it’s just the recession, but the whole technology world feels like a ship adrift lately. Sure, new projects are launching, and some of them are even slightly compelling. I’m genuinely excited about Google Wave and Wolfram Alpha. In retrospect though, these are small initiatives compared to game-changers like the original iPhone.

I sincerely hope that Apple and Microsoft are using this downtime to incubate some truly epic new products and services. Leaps of innovation, pushing the envelope, taking the status quo and turning it on its head – moves of that caliber are what truly galvanize the world to move mountains. We’ve seen far too little of that lately.

Get off your laurels, gentlemen. You don’t win this race by jogging in place or by paying some spectators to cheer a little louder for you. You are the icons we’ve come to trust, the captains to which we look for inspiration and vision. Don’t you dare let us down when we need you the most.