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Where’s my Apple photo frame?

October 30, 2009

At around the time Apple were bringing the iPhone to market there was a perception among Apple-reliant creatives that priorities had changed at Cupertino, and that all energies were focused on the revolutionary new handheld device. This perception was further reinforced when Apple dropped the word ‘Computer’ to become simply Apple Inc in 2007. This subtle but significant repositioning was actually long overdue, given Apple’s increasing prominence in professional and consumer software, and their growing share of the music market.

Like Gordon Ramsay, Steve Jobs is a high-profile exponent of the simplified product range. Do a few things and do them well, and you will be successful. In an over-saturated, highly competitive market it’s the smart approach. I had hoped however that the change would herald some carefully-considered product diversification; some outstanding new product-defining objects in areas where lazy, indifferent manufacturers dominated a ripe market. Take digital photo frames for example. These are essentially, framed, wide-angle LCD displays with some connectivity and rudimentary firmware operating system holding it all together.

What would consumers typically want from a such a device? Something that looks great, is easy to operate, is versatile and ‘smart’. After all, the purpose of this device is to display cherished images. This isn’t rocket science. Last year however I suffered the frustration of searching for a beautiful, elegant, simple and well-built model with which to display my favourite photos. In this regard I consider myself a typical consumer. Instead, I had to trawl through a morass of horrible, cheap-looking ugly pieces of junk, that would be purchased only by the gullible, to be used once then collect dust.

I ended up with the best of a bad lot. I won’t denigrate the manufacturer, but I had expected better. It looked ‘okay’, the functionality was reasonable but the interface was a pig. Clunky, ponderous and daunting. It was like the domination of design-led products hadn’t happened. In every way the device was unremarkable. How easy is it to update? I haven’t. I’m too busy to reformat memory sticks, resize, re-orientate and reorder my images for a demanding proprietorial process that then feels like a minor application. And yet, it could be so different. Apple are eminently well placed to produce such a product. It might not the have mass appeal of an iPod, but I’m willing to bet that people would pay a premium for something that looks great, is easy to use and most importantly gets used more than once.

With low-power OLED displays coming down in price, why not make a frame that could be hung on a wall and is self-powered by rechargeable induction, for example? People don’t like dangling, messy cables, but neither do they like chasing out cable conduits across their living room walls. People also tend to switch these displays on prior to guests visiting, so contrary to current tech limitations these displays wouldn’t necessarily be asked to perform continiously. How about intelligent power-management? A display that comes on for say 5 minute cycles when not sensing motion, and adjusts for ambient light conditions?

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to send your favourite photos directly from your photo-managment software, wirelessly, to any display in the house? After all, the image management with most frames is abysmal, and consumers have demonstrated they are more comfortable configuring and making decisions when sitting at their computer. Smart albums would update automatically, chronicling your children’s growth not on the web, but in the comfort and privacy of your home, for your friends and family.

Despite the grim economic times theses devices are still hot-ticket items. Evidence suggests that consumers are least likely to economise on home-centred entertainment even during tough times. They also make great gifts, so please Apple, can I have a photo frame for Christmas?

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