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Apple in miniature

This week Apple faces two significant tablet challengers. The first is Microsoft, which is releasing its long-awaited Surface tablet on Friday. The second is… itself.

Yesterday, amidst the anticipation for the Surface and strong sales for the Kindle Fire, Apple announced a slew of new devices, the $329 iPad Mini the most intriguing among them.

The mobile era has been defined by Apple: iPod, iPhone, iPad, you know the drill. Apple ascended largely unchallenged, facing only a few stunned and weak rivals. By the time it got to tablets in 2010, Apple benefited from an unspeakably large pent-up demand for a device nobody had been clamoring for. Since then it’s sold more than 100 million iPads.

The market has matured in only two years. As Apple got wealthier, the competition got wiser. Unable to counter Apple in the larger tablet space, it started to produce smaller tablets that didn’t compromise on functionality (though, admittedly, they did on apps), some undercutting Apple’s price by 60 percent.

With that success proven — Amazon claims 22 percent for the Fire HD alone — Apple’s competitors started to move in on Apple’s territory — larger tablets. Amazon released the first Fire version 13 months ago, and now comes Microsoft’s Surface. Pre-orders are said to be brisk, but it will take a while to gauge traction. The device is light and portable and solves the one niggling criticism many still have about the iPad: Surface includes a physical keyboard that is cleverly incorporated into the cover. So while the device is a tablet it also doubles as a very small notebook. Not a bad trick.

Jack Dorsey’s impractical double duty

Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared on PandoDaily.com.

Can we finally stop pretending someone can run two companies if they just work hard enough or are brilliant enough?

I’m looking at you, Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Twitter investor Peter Fenton and everyone else who spent years arguing that it was totally doable. In various interviews and private conversations throughout 2011, people close to Twitter consistently maintained it was no big deal that Dorsey could build Square – one of the single most ambitious, capital- and execution-heavy startups of our day – and run product at Twitter – a company that was woefully behind on any meaningful product innovation and desperately needed a visionary leader.

You know what they all said whenever anyone asked whether this was sustainable. And you know it even if you’ve never heard it firsthand. “Well, Steve Jobs did it.”

What happens if smartphones become commodities?

Editor’s note: This piece was originally published at PandoDaily.com

Remember Antennagate? Back in the summer of 2010, the brouhaha over reception glitches in the iPhone 4 dominated tech headlines for weeks and led to a class-action lawsuit and a $15-per-user settlement. In retrospect, the controversy seems meaningless, which is why I thought of it amid the current flap over Apple Maps.

Apple will survive the Maps controversy, just as it weathered Antennagate. But there is another trend affecting Apple that the announcement of the iPhone 5 revealed, a larger trend that will take much longer to play out: Smartphones are becoming too similar for their own good.

Only five years after Apple refashioned the smartphone with its touchscreen and its iOS software, smartphones are becoming a commodity. Any must-have feature that distinguishes one phone from the pack is quickly adopted by the pack itself. Fandroids and Apple fanboys will always argue passionately about which phone is superior, but for mainstream consumers, it’s getting harder to see that one brand’s phone is better than the others.

Why I won’t be getting an iPhone 5

Thousands of people will be “the first” to get the new iPhone 5 today. I won’t be among them. I’ve had every model of Apple’s revolutionary handset since it was first unveiled five years ago — upgrading even if my phone contract hadn’t expired yet — and, like the first-time parent of a toddler in a public place, am in a state of panic the moment I don’t know where my iPhone 4S is.

But I am skipping this upgrade. And while Apple is already setting sales records (again) with this launch, I’m seeing this milestone as the beginning of the end of the smartphone as the dominant mobile device in our daily lives.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not abandoning the iPhone, or any smartphone — at least not yet. I’m not even saying my iPhone 4S will be my last Apple handset, or that the smartphone won’t endure, even if only as a commoditized device.

As Apple’s Passbook hits the scene, Tello tries to end coupon envy

iPhone users get the closest thing Apple has made to a digital wallet on Wednesday with the release of iOS 6’s new Passbook app, which stores electronic coupons, loyalty cards and tickets.

But where will all those nifty new digital coupons come from?

For coffee shops, corner pizzerias and other small businesses that don’t have in-house engineers to create their own Passbook coupons, a new service launching Wednesday aims to make it easy.

PassTools is a Web-based service that lets businesses quickly create Passbook coupons with a few clicks. The service, which costs $99 a month for up to 1,000 Passbook coupons or tickets, is the latest product from Tello, a Silicon Valley start-up that has until now focused on an online customer-feedback service for businesses.

The new iPhone is a people’s evolution

Revolutions can be exciting, but sometimes evolution can be even more powerful. With the curtain drawn back today on what exactly the new iPhone will do (and will be called), Apple is entering a period of consolidating its lead. Its next trick is to outflank smartphone competitors as deftly as it has in the tablet wars.

The news on iPhone 5 Day began with some some telling iPad statistics: The tablet’s market share has grown from 62% to 68% year-over-year through June, despite strong (relatively speaking) competition from Amazon’s Kindle Fire. And the iPad accounts for a borderline inconceivable 91% of all web surfing with tablets.

Why did CEO Tim Cook drop these little tidbits before the main event? To force the audience, as only the great magicians can, to look “over there” at the shiny stats instead of “over here,” where the devices generating those stats aren’t much changed. And to telegraph his master plan.

Amazon and the tablet market’s 7 / 10 split

Amazon is going where few have dared to tread, announcing a “full size” tablet that takes on Apple directly — and has the gall to be cheaper than the iPad. The tablet highway is littered with the remains of wannabe iPad killers from big hardware names — Motorola, Blackberry, Samsung. Even Google, whose Android software powers the Amazon tablets, didn’t bother to poke the Cupertino giant when it released its Nexus 7, choosing to make a tablet a smidge under two inches smaller than the iPad.

Amazon’s new large tablet, the 8.9-inch Fire HD, has a slightly smaller screen than the iPad’s 9.7 inches. But the entry-level price, announced today, is $300 — $200 less than the iPad equivalent, and only $100 more than the industry standard price for the new 7-inch interlopers, pioneered by Amazon.

Why bother overtly taking on Apple? Because Amazon can — and almost only Amazon can.

Apple and the burden of being a behemoth

In the annals of meaningless milestones, Apple’s latest achievement — surpassing Microsoft, circa 1999, as the largest U.S. company ever — is right up there. I mean, how high is up? How big is BIG? What does Apple win, Johnny!?

But it did get me to thinking again about the lifespan of successful tech and Internet companies. There seems to be a trajectory that grants them life in the fast lane for 10 to 20 years before they are overtaken, made obsolete or dismissed as boring. The general public is a punishing grader that deifies promising, charismatic kids with hoodies and burn rates (at least for a while) but dismisses massive companies — like Microsoft, Oracle, Silicon Graphics and IBM — that print money and arguably control the world but aren’t sexy.

Microsoft is, of course, more IBM than Palm or even Sony on my spectrum. It was one of the original Harvard dropout startups and among the first of them to mint wealthy employees (called Microsoft Millionaires). And in December 1999, at the height of the dot-com boom, Microsoft became worth $616.34 billion — more than any U.S. company had ever been. (By one metric it still holds the record: Apple would have to reach a market cap of $842.5 billion, Microsoft’s inflation-adjusted market cap, to be the clear winner of this meaningless milestone sweepstakes.)

Apple’s patent victory is a victory for competition

Apple’s resounding patent victory over Samsung in a California courtroom last Friday is a blow to the competition, which now won’t be able copy Apple’s technology. But it is a win for competition. It will force everyone to think harder about turning the unimaginable into the normal.

And that’s what technology innovation is all about.

I am all for intellectual property (it’s how writers make a living) and no particular fan of software patents, which can be vague and overly broad. It’s a very tangled area of IP that in the modern-day tech industry has been a life-support system (think Kodak) and a means of protecting oneself against patent trolls (like that guy who tried to sue the World Wide Web). Patent troves, in the astute description of technologist Andy Baio, have also been weaponized in perverted campaigns to stifle innovation.

Apple and Samsung are duking it out all over the world — some 50 lawsuits in about 10 countries, by one reckoning — in a sort of forever war. Samsung got a favorable ruling just days before in a South Korean court. But the marquee case was the one in San Jose, California, where a jury found that Samsung had violated six of the seven patents Apple sought to defend – three software and three design – and awarded the company $1.05 billion.

Ad startup SessionM nabs big clients, expands

Advertisers have long sought to grab the attention of the notoriously inattentive mobile user. And Lars Albright is seeking to provide just that by “gamifying” mobile ads.

The co-founder of Quattro Wireless, which was bought by mobile device giant Apple for $275 million in 2009, left Apple last year to start SessionM, which aims to engage mobile users by tempting them to play a game, watch a video, take a poll or share information with friends – all for “M” points.

The “M” points can then be redeemed for anything from gift cards to discounts to charitable donations.