Apple's Year of Living Incrementally

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Apple's 2009 announcements--at least those we have seen so far--are not up to the company's recent standard. Let me go a bit further: They are pretty much a snooze, at least compared to what we have come to expect.

Of course, what Apple has given us in the recent past is more interesting than the products any five other companies are doing combined, so Apple deserves some slack. Still, even today's iPhone 3.0 OS preview--easily the best announcement so far this year--is more interesting than it is exciting.

Was there anything included that users did not already know they needed? Only if you count the fact that those of us still using the original iPhone did not know we needed our phones made obsolete by new OS features the original iPhone hardware will not support. That was bound to happen someday, but Apple was so dishonest in how it pitched the 3G iPhone that some of us have avoided it as a matter of principle.

iPhone 3.0 mostly fills obvious holes in the iPhone's development platform. That means more interesting applications, but is not earthshaking. In addition, there is a downside: The new OS makes it possible for app developers to sell stuff from within their applications, which is probably a mixed blessing.

Based on the pre-announcement coverage, I must be the only iPhone user who has never felt the need to cut, copy, and paste while using my phone. I guess I will learn, on my new iPhone 3G, once the new OS is released this summer.

As for the other 2009 products: The new iMacs, Mac mini, Time Machine and AirPort Extreme, even the new iPod Shuffle are all very nice. But, they are also incremental improvements to products we already know and mostly love. Not one of them made me want to run out and replace what I already own just to get the newest model.

That is bad news for Apple. The recession has already seen Mac sales plummet 16 percent in February, according to the market analyst firm NPD Group. Right now, Apple really could use something people would rush to spend their unemployment checks on.

This is not intended as a knock against Apple. When you have done as much innovating as Apple has in the last decade, you eventually end up with a maturing product line and fewer exciting things to introduce.

I am not ready to say Apple is at the end of a cycle of innovation. I would never bet against the company having something great to introduce for this Christmas, but what if all we get is a basic refresh of the iPod line or maybe a lightly improved iPhone? Will Apple become ho-hum?

It does not look any better on the operating system front.

If you want to see something sleep-inducing, look at the page describing the next major release of Mac OS X, called Snow Leopard. The promo copy even admits the release is going to be less than thrilling:

"Taking a break from adding new features, Snow Leopard…builds on Leopard's enormous innovations by delivering a new generation of core software technologies that will streamline Mac OS X, enhance its performance, and set new standards for quality.

"Snow Leopard dramatically reduces the footprint of Mac OS X, making it even more efficient for users, and giving them back valuable hard drive space for their music and photos."

Does Apple think customers are going to spend $100 for such an upgrade? The only real "feature" the page goes on to mention is real, honest-to-gosh Microsoft Exchange support, finally. How many times have we been promised that?

Snow Leopard may be very important for empowering new Mac hardware, but if Apple wants to generate any excitement, it is going to have to try harder and do more.

This is not shaping up to be Apple's best year for new technology. However, when you have been pushing so hard for so long, it is only understandable the company would need a rest. In may be early to sum up an entire year, but I am already hoping for a better 2010 in Cupertino.

David Coursey thinks he is on Apple's "ignore" list for not being positive enough about the company. Write to him using his contact page.

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