Halloween trick-or-treating is always a mixed bag, and it works the same in the tech world. Let's sort through the lot.
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Halloween trick-or-treating is always a mixed bag (or pillowcase). Sometimes you luck out and get a whole candy bar; other times you get the house giving out pennies and raisins.
It works kind of the same way in the tech world. Some years the kindly folks in the big Silicon Valley mansions give consumers treats so incredible that they talk about them for seasons on end. Sometime they open their big, old-growth doors and dole out stuff so cheap or pointless that it makes you want to come back with eggs, toilet paper and flaming bags of something awfully unpleasant.
Leading up to this Halloween, tech consumers and investors have received a little of each extreme from tech companies. With those mixed results starting to show up in those companies' earnings, maybe it's about time to sort through the bag and figure out with products were the sweetest in 2012 and which were potentially toxic to consumers and companies alike:
Google's(:GOOG) Nexus 7 Tablet
Legal wrangling between this tablet's manufacturer, Samsung, and Apple(:AAPL) held up this device's release, but the wait was well worth it for Android fans and Apple detractors.
The Nexus 7, at 7 inches, is smaller than the recently announced iPad Mini. At $200, it's also much less expensive than its $330 competitor. Its HD display is great for games and movies, its Tegra 3 processor is built for speed and its mere presence is an affront to Apple and its followers.
Think that's an overstatement? We weren't the ones who took time out of the iPad Mini launch presentation to bring the Nexus 7 onstage and tear it down like a would-be sorority sister during pledge week. We don't remember the Motorola (:MMI) Xoom or BlackBerry(:RIMM) Playbook getting that kind of rough treatment from Apple, or even acknowledgement. You mad, Tim?
Amazon's(:AMZN) Kindle Fire HD
It hasn't been a great quarter for Amazon. The company took its first loss in nine years, it's not optimistic about next quarter and it has analysts grumbling.
It did manage to score one big win in the past three months, though. Despite Apple's assertion that 7-inch tablets aren't a good idea -- a claim not at all rooted in Apple's decision to make one 0.9 inches bigger -- Amazon's Kindle Fire HD not only got the first Consumer Reports recommendation for a 7-inch tablet but scored its first thumbs-up for a tablet costing $200 or less. Considering that figure gets you an iPod Touch in Apple world, that's a victory Amazon and consumers should feel good crowing about.
Apple's iPhone 5
Sure, the past two entries had enough Apple bashing to qualify as a cider press, but Apple leaves consumers no choice but to recognize game when it's played by the best.
Dogged by production issues before its release and facing tough competition from the Samsung Galaxy S III in a smartphone world where it's used to standing alone, the iPhone needed a big showing in September. In the end, it gave fans what they wanted: a slimmer build, better screen, improved camera and real, fast 4G capability.
Yes, Google Maps is harder to use and the Maps app that replaced it is a certified disaster, but in the iPhone's world that's a trifle. In the long run, it kept iPhone lovers happy, gave new adopters more reasons to switch and maintained enough momentum to sell 5 million devices in its opening weekend. While there's still an argument to be made about quality and value vs. the upstart Galaxy, the iPhone reasserted itself as the phone to beat.
2013 Audi A5
Yes, it's a car, but the A5's main selling points are its tech details.
Its navigation system displays directions and places of interest using Google Earth's photographic landscaping, finds nearby gas stations and even displays their prices before you arrive. The A5 also allows drivers to sync smartphones via Bluetooth, download MP3s to its hard drive using SD cards or USB drives and play those songs via voice command through its Bang & Olufsen audio system.
Perhaps most impressive are its Drive Select features, including adaptive cruise control that adjusts speed by locating cars through radar and activates blind-spot warning lights when cars are in adjacent lanes. Combined with an amazing clear rearview camera, the Audi's tech package actually aids drivers for their $50,000 instead of just entertaining or comforting them.
Better Google+ Hangouts
When indignant, jaded social media users wonder aloud why they should jump onto Google+ too, Hangouts are the easiest answer. Google+ Hangouts let you video-chat with up to nine other people and have been used to great effect by families, businesses, organizations and even President Barack Obama.
They got a big boost in May, though, when Google+ unveiled a feature that allows users to broadcast live video publicly from a Google+ stream or a YouTube channel or embed it on a website. You can see how many people are watching while it's happening, post it to YouTube or Google+ when it's over and even see it on your iPad after Google finally produced a Google+ app in July.
Sony's(:SNE) PlayStation Vita
Maybe Sony wasn't paying attention when the whole video game world screamed at Nintendo not to release a new portable game system last year. Maybe it was busy when Nintendo figured out that nobody was going to buy its 3DS handheld for $250 when they could get an iPhone for $199, forcing Nintendo to cut $80 off the price.
Maybe it just thought the PlayStation Vita was too good an opportunity to ignore. It was wrong. The Vita, billed as the hard-core gamer's handheld and released with $250 and $280 price tags, has sunk like the shiny black rock it is. By the time it was released in the U.S. in February, the Vita's sales in Japan -- arguably the market it was made for -- had fallen below those of Sony's PlayStation Portable. That console was released eight years ago when smartphones still had keypads and lacked motion control gyros.
Nothing shy of disaster followed. Nintendo's 3DS may have been questionable, but it's sold more than 21 million units worldwide since its debut, according to video game industry tracking site VGChartz. The Vita? Three million. It's still outsold on a weekly basis by Nintendo's older, cheaper Wii console, which is waiting for the new Wii U to put it out of its misery next month.
How's it doing in the U.S.? It's sold fewer than 825,000 units here and finished dead last in sales last week, with roughly 9,600 units sold. By comparison, Nintendo's original DS sold 15,000 units and the once-derided 3DS sold 58,000. With Flurry Analytics noting that Nintendo's handheld market share had decreased from 78% three years ago to just 59% last year as casual gamers embraced smartphone apps and cheaper hardware, Sony just didn't seem to know how to take a hint.
Apple's Lightning adapters
One thing Apple failed to mention before introducing the iPhone 5 was that it would be switching from the 30-pin connectors it's been using for more than a decade to an eight-pin connector for this device.
Even when it did, it somehow mistakenly told iPhone 5 buyers on its U.K. site that "your phone includes a Lightning to 30-pin Adapter for connecting 30-pin accessories to devices featuring the Lightning connector." Not true at all. Apple scrubbed that reference from its site after customer service representatives started getting questions about it and clarified that iPhone 5 buyers would have to fork over $29 for an adapter or $39 for an adapter with a seven-inch cord. Oh, and those cords wouldn't ship until about a month after Apple unveiled the iPhone 5.
We understand why Apple would want a smaller connector for its incredible shrinking product line, but backwards-compatibility is no small matter in Apple World or tech in general. When you have an entire ecosytem that prides itself on never having to change peripherals like some schmuck flip-phone or PC user, it's pretty easy to see why they'd be so easily peeved by a $30 progress tax.
Facebook(:FB) IPO and Zynga(:ZNGA)
No, Facebook isn't exactly setting the financial world on fire. No, its stock isn't living up to even the most modest of expectations. No, investors didn't think it was going to have this much trouble monetizing a service everybody seemed to use.
But how do you prop up all that promise with a foundation of social media games that now only somewhat entertain their players while annoying the living hell out of "friends" whose status updates are flooded with FarmVille detritus? More importantly, how does the company making that game shoulder so much of the blame for Facebook's shortcomings that it gets called out in the earnings call and is forced to scrap games and lay off workers?
The value of Facebook's shares have dropped more than 42% since their initial public offering in May. Zynga's shares have dropped more than 68% over the same span. It's hard to tell who's leading this dance of death, but increasingly silent status updates and fallow FarmVille fields suggest it's going to end badly for both.
Remember all those vacant big box stores with the giant red dots on the front that Circuit City left behind after it went out of business in 2009? Best Buy apparently thinks it's still competing with them.
The electronics chain already closed 50 stores this year, laid off 2,400 of its Geek Squad employees and got the big-brain idea that Best Buy Mobile stores in malls would be a better way to go. Malls? Really? Are we going to meet Damone down by the multiplex so he can score with Jennifer Jason Leigh? Are they going to hire Jay and Silent Bob as security and see if Ben Affleck will leave his job at Fashionable Male to work the counter?
Maybe Best Buy should just invest in plutonium and old Deloreans and going back to 1985's tech market. It has to be a better option than the current course, which has seen the company report earnings declines in the past two quarters, warn that third-quarter earnings will be "significantly below the prior-year period" and clean out the management ranks under new CEO Hubert Joly to promote Best Buy Mobile folks. Best Buy can flee to the malls if it wants to, but considering much of the pressure on its sales is coming from online retailers such as Amazon, the mall strategy may render it about as relevant as Chess King by next holiday season.
Tech in the courtroom
Listen, we understand the importance of intellectual property rights in a sector as competitive and complex as tech, but come on.
Google was snarling at Microsoft(:MSFT) and Nokia(:NOK) this year while locking horns with Oracle (:ORCL), Yahoo! (:YHOO) sued Facebook and, at one point, Apple was suing Motorola, Samsung and HTC at the same time, with the other three countersuing in return. Patent infringement is no small matter and there are billions of dollars at stake, but the frequency and ubiquity of these lawsuits just makes an already cynical public wonder how many suits are rooted in corporate espionage and malfeasance and how many are being fought in the courtroom just so they won't have play out in stores.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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