Although it may seem like it, I don’t hate Apple.  True, nearly every piece of electronics I own run a Microsoft OS (all 3 PCs, my phone and my MP3 player).  But the reason isn’t that I don’t like shiny objects or that I love getting certain UI innovations after everyone else.  No, I’ve stuck with Microsoft because generally I prefer to deal with some necessary tweaking or frustration in order to have the freedom to make these customizations.  I want to be able to build my PC, reflash my phone and get more features in my MP3 player without having to fight the OS manufacturer at every turn.

So I do dislike the walled-garden approach to computing that Apple has chosen, not because it doesn’t work (for the majority of users, it does), but because I appreciate choice and freedom when it comes to configuring my computing devices.  When you hear of Apple purposefully removing applications or functionality from iPhones because it competes with some business of theirs or AT&T’s, it really sounds like iPhone users are just renting their devices.

But that’s not the purpose of this rant.  My real frustration with Apple is not anything that they’ve done wrong, but the effect their success has had on customers’ mentality.  The iPod wasn’t the first hard-drive based MP3 player, but it was the first to be so compact, easy to use and attractive.  And so Apple had a well-deserved hit on their hands that became the “Kleenex” or “Chapstick” of the portable music player business.  When shopping  for a music player, most people assume the iPod is going to be the best choice because it’s the best-selling device and the name that they associate with such a thing.  This reputation is well-deserved, but it also means that competitors who come later with better devices have a hard time succeeding against this mythology.  This isn’t anyone’s fault except the consumer’s, and I’m not suggesting something should be done to force a change.  But it’s frustrating when you see MP3 players like the 2nd generation Zune, which can be had for less money and have more features like built-in FM tuners, wireless syncing and a big and beautiful screen, do poorly just because people don’t stop to consider alternatives.

It doesn’t matter so much to me when it’s other people’s decisions, but when it affects me, it’s really frustrating.  Case in point: the iPod Shuffle.  I play drums in a church band, and in order to help the band prepare, the leader lends MP3 players to everyone with the songs we’re playing for the next few weeks.  It’s a great idea.  Except the MP3 players he purchased were the iPod Shuffle…the WORST possible choice he could have made for this.  The Shuffle is good for one thing and one thing only: listening to a random assortment of music while on the go, particularly when exercising.  It’s tiny, rugged and light, and has a nice big play/pause button.   I don’t blame Apple for making the Shuffle, and you can’t say they don’t market it honestly…the name is “SHUFFLE” for crying out loud.  But it’s about the worst MP3 player option when you want to listen to a specific song, as we band members do when we’re practicing.  Our leader has to print out track listings for the thing so that we know what order they’re in, and then we have to listen to whatever song it’s on in order to find out where we are in the list, then count the number of skips to get to the song.  What makes me mad is that if average consumers didn’t think “iPod” when they think “MP3 player,” they might realize that the Sandisk Sansa is a much better choice for something like this.  It’s cheaper, small, has just as much capacity, and HAS A SCREEN!  But I’m sure our band leader was just thinking, “hmm, I need a cheap music player for the band to use…hey, the iPod Shuffle’s in my price range, I’ll get that!”  To make matters worse, I just checked Amazon and the latest generation Shuffle has a full 1 1/2 stars lower rating than the comparable Sansa, with tons of negative reviews.  But they still sell like crazy because people see “iPod” and their normal instincts of comparison shopping shut down.  Arg.

Another example.  Currently there’s a lot of hooplah over the iPhone OS 4 probably having tethering/hotspot support for sharing internet access with other devices.  And everyone’s made a big deal about the Palm Pre and Evo 4G for this feature.  Um, hello, I had tethering on my Palm Treo back in 2005 and actually used it to provide internet to my laptop for a whole summer while I was on an internship.  Paid a few bucks for the app, and not a cent more than the $15/mo I already paid for internet.  Before the first iPhone even came out.  What’s more, my current phone, the Windows Mobile powered HTC Touch Pro, is configured to have wireless hotspot capability using my phone’s standard $30/mo unlimited 3G plan.  And it works amazingly well (a couple button-clicks and my girlfriend’s new PC was online using my phone via its wireless card).  Granted, I had to unlock and reflash my WinMo phone to get it to do this, and in neither case was Sprint probably happy with what I was doing.  But come on, this functionality’s been possible for practically free in Smartphones for years with a little bit of work, but it’s not until iPhones are rumored to get it that anybody really takes notice.

Speaking of which, I’m still super happy with my Touch Pro, despite it running the often-sluggish Windows Mobile 6.5 OS.  Why?  Because it’s got great hardware, is easy to unlock, and is running HTC’s brilliant Sense UI with various tweaks like Cookie’s home screen editor which lets me arrange the home widgets however I like.  It slows down sometimes since WinMo isn’t a great OS for a phone and my 2+ year old phone wasn’t designed to run the latest version of Sense, but it generally works great and in my opinion looks and navigates way better than either the iPhone OS or the stock Android one.  And I didn’t have to pay a cent to get these upgrades thanks to the folks over at  True, I’m considering jumping ship to a Sense-powered Android phone before long because of the vastly superior app selection, but the point is, I didn’t have to wait for HTC or Microsoft to decide to support a new feature like wi-fi hotspots, or an improved UI.  I got it whenever independent developers figured out how to make it work and got it on my phone in a free, 5-minute ROM flash.

Enough of my rant.  I don’t have anything against people who like Apple products.  I’ve played with an iPad and despite my early skepticism, I was very impressed.  Not better than a $500 laptop for most productive uses, but it’s indeed a beautiful and well-engineered device that would be great to just have around the house for reading, web browsing, and playing simple games.  It just bothers me that the consequence of Apple’s market-leading and market-creating innovations is vastly understated recognition when competitors come out with devices that improve over Apple’s.  Sure, it’s the same complaint Apple leveled against Microsoft’s dominant PC OS position in the ’90s, but it’s no less of an issue.

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