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Newsmakers: The (not so) golden Apple

Posted: 28 Dec 2007 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Apple? iPod? iPhone?

Apple Inc. outdid itself this year with the heavily hyped rollout of three electronic eye candies!the Apple TV, the iPhone and the iPod Touch!triggering a frenzy in the consumer market that reverberated to the supply chain.

According to iSuppli Corp., Apple's product designs have driven the highest increase in IC spending among the top 10 U.S. electronics manufacturers in the first half of this year. Likewise, the company's projected demand for NAND flash memory to be used in the iPod and the iPhone had triggered fears of supply shortage at the onset of Q3, as reported by DRAMeXchange.

The Apple TV
The Apple TV was released in late March, a month later than originally scheduled. The slick, white box has a hard drive that stores and organizes media in a way that's familiar to iPod users. The device essentially turns the TV into an iPod, but with a larger display and a sound system!all for $299. "You connect it to your entertainment system just like a DVD player, but it plays digital content you get from the Internet rather than DVDs you get from a physical store," promised Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the Apple TV introduction at Macworld.

The subsequent teardown of the device by MarketWatch found an Intel CPU, a Broadcom Wi-Fi chipset, an Nvidia graphics processor and a Marvell HDD. Components from iPod suppliers, including TI, Samsung, Silicon Image, Cypress and Intersil, were also found inside Apple TV.

Its enormous potential notwithstanding, user reviews found the Apple TV is limited by the lack of available HD content as well as glitches in its interface, which the company had promised to fix.

The iPhone
Coming a couple of months after Apple TV, the iPhone is arguably the tour de force of Job's team this year. The quad-band GSM smart phone could play music and video, surf the Internet via Wi-Fi, check POP emails on-the-go and locate places with its built-in Google Maps. All these features are accessible via the phone's touchscreen interface, which Jobs himself touted as the most revolutionary interface since the mouse.

The iPhone rolled out as promised in late June, following months of anxious anticipation, including a high-profile legal battle with Cisco over the iPhone name, forecasts by naysayers that customers would shy away from the pricey phone, and reports of touchscreen supply glitches. The magic of Apple's marketing team was evident even days before the release date, as hundreds of customers queued outside Apple stores to pay $500 for a smart phone-cum-music player that was tied exclusively to AT&T networks.

Some 3 million phones were released in the United States June 29, and one of them landed on the teardown table of Semiconductor Insights. SI noted chipmakers with significant design wins inside, namely Samsung, Broadcom, Infineon, National Semiconductor, Texas Instruments, Wolfson and CSR. German company Balda, which has partnered with Taiwan display maker TPK Holding, was credited for the phone's novel touchscreen interface, which some users later reported to have dead spots.

By September, a $200 price cut on the iPhone angered early buyers, prompting Jobs to blog an apology in which promised "every iPhone customer who purchased an iPhone from either Apple or AT&T, and who is not receiving a rebate or any other consideration, a $100 store credit towards the purchase of any product at an Apple Retail Store or the Apple Online Store."

Late in October, the iPhone software development center was launched to spur software developers to create application programs. The center initially supports only Web-based applications, but Apple reaffirmed its commitment to provide a native application development environment by February 2008, as announced by the Jobs earlier.

The iPod Touch
A patent filing by Apple in May first hinted at the use of a touchscreen interface on devices other than the iPhone. Thus it was no surprise that the latest iPod, unveiled in September, sported a multitouch user interface similar to the iPhone's. Available in 8Gbyte and 16Gbyte models for $299 and $399, respectively, the Touch offers Wi-Fi networking for new applications including Safari mobile device browser, YouTube application and iTunes Wi-Fi music store.

The Touch is 8mm thin and has a 3.5-inch widescreen display for watching movies and TV shows, as well as viewing photos and album art. It also has a built-in accelerometer that automatically senses when you rotate it into its landscape position. The music player also has a built-in ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts the display's brightness.

The similar interface notwithstanding, a subsequent teardown of the Touch by iSuppli revealed that the device has unique features, disproving assumptions that it is but a stripped down iPhone. The Touch has space-saving components in its WLAN module that were not in the iPhone, iSuppli noted. It also uses a single PCB design while the iPhone has a modular two-PCB design. The touchscreen circuitry is on the PCB in the iPod, not on a separate module as in the iPhone.

Making peace with green
Despite all the fireworks that went with Apple's successful product rollouts, it hasn't been all rosy for Steve Jobs and company. Environmental activists have decried the company's alleged failure to eliminate toxic substances such as brominated fire retardants and PVC in its products.

Environmental group Greenpeace in January spoiled Apple's eagerly watched MacWorld Expo in San Francisco when it projected giant images of Asian scrapyards at Apple's store in the city. According to the group, Apple lagged behind other electronics companies that have made commitments to green their products and have set up global recycling programs.

Responding to these criticisms, Jobs in May said in a press release that the company is leading the industry in removing toxic chemicals from its products and promoting recycling. He said the company has recycled 5.8 million kilograms of e-waste in 2006, which is equal to 9.5 percent weight of all products it had sold seven years earlier. The company expects the percentage to grow 13 percent in 2007, 20 percent in 2008 and reach nearly 30 percent by 2010.

Jobs' pledge to phase out harmful substances from Apple products landed the company on 10th spot, out of 14, in the June 2007 edition of Greenpeace's "Guide to Greener Electronics," which ranks companies according to their commitments to phase out harmful and toxic substances, and in instituting recycling programs for products which have reached the end of their lifecycles. A late 2006 edition of the guide had ranked Apple at the bottom of the list.

Still, in October, Greenpeace released its report "Missed call: the iPhone's hazardous chemicals," in which it detailed the results of the test it did on the iPhone. According to the report, the iPhone contained toxic brominated compounds, indicating the presence of brominated flame retardants and hazardous PVC.

An independent scientific laboratory also tested 18 internal and external components of the iPhone and confirmed the presence of brominated compounds in half the samples, including in the phone's antenna, in which they made up 10 percent of the total weight of the flexible circuit board. A mixture of toxic phthalates was found to make up 1.5 percent of the PVC coating of the headphone cables.

Greenpeace had tried to upstage the iPhone's Nov. 9 launch party in Europe with a warning that the phone is not as green as it could be.

- Christine Telesforo
EE Times-Asia

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