iPad early adoption: a risk too far

Steve Jobs wasn’t kidding when he said that the “technology road is bumpy”.

Those familiar with my initial thoughts about the Apple iPad won't be overly surprised if I waste no time in doing a little more "Apple-bashing", since the army of iPad early adopters are already reporting major hassles with their shiny new devices.

Don't get me wrong, I do have sympathy for those who rushed out to get their hands on the iPad the very first weekend it went on sale, only to find in many cases that its wifi was iffy, to say the least. Others have complained it takes an age to charge it up. But although I'm sympathetic, they were always likely, like any early adopters, to pay a price to be first with iPad bragging rights.

Just like the early adopters of the iPod, who went up in arms when Apple dropped the price from $599 to $399 within weeks of it going on sale, the purchasers of iPad 1.0 should keep in mind the words of Apple's CEO, Steve Jobs, when he attempted an apology of sorts back then. As Jobs said, had those iPod buyers been "in technology for 30-plus years", like him, they would have a better understanding of how the "technology road is bumpy", and appreciate that "this is life in the technology lane".

Perhaps he will make a similar statement to appease the customers who have flooded Apple's discussion boards to complain that their iPad is struggling to get a strong wireless signal, despite other devices nearby working normally.

"I have rebooted the iPad three times, doesn't help. My MacBook is running on the same wifi network just fine. Not spending $500 on something I can't even use. It's going back tomorrow," said one user on a forum.

But I'd be surprised if Jobs gets embroiled in such "petty" complaints about his beloved tablet. Talking about early sales figures which showed that Apple managed to shift 300,000 units on the first day of the gadget's release and has sold another 500,000 since, he said: "It feels great to have the iPad launched into the world. It's going to be a game-changer."

Sweat sensation

For those with complaints about the device, it may feel like far less of a game-changer (though I suppose they can always play games on the thing even if they struggle to download books and audio, or surf the net, the purpose for which the device was primarily intended).

Nor are they alone. Buyers of the third-generation iPod Shuffle were staggered to discover that a device marketed as small and light enough to be ideal for gym workouts would break down spectacularly, should any sweat get near the headphone jack. As one of hundreds of commenters on a bulletin board wrote of the debacle: "I would have been SHOCKED if Microsoft was boneheaded enough to have released a product for exercise that was obviously not tested for its primary intent. For Apple, it is inexcusable."

So what does Apple have to say about the iPad wifi issue? Will it be able to do a software patch, or will it have to recall the faulty devices? You'll have to ask the company yourself. I asked what its response was to all of the third-generation iPod Shuffle failures a while back, and the press office failed to respond to my two emails and a phone call.

It seems that because I don't exclusively peddle positive messages about Apple and its gizmos, the company won't talk to me.

Compare and contrast: when I called Microsoft recently to ask about its thoughts on open source in local government, the company hooked me up with its national technology officer within hours. Yet many of the Apple faithful still call Microsoft the Evil Empire!

Anyway, as far as the iPad is concerned, the niggles over wifi haven't changed my mind: I still don't want one. As one commenter on my recent article wrote: "A completely stupid device . .. it's just a fashion statement if anything. It's really not competition for any other device . . . so the makers and supporters say, 'Oh, that's because it's a revolutionary new device' but I say '. . . that we didn't need.' "

For the sake of balance, another commenter said: "I love my new iPad. It's only $500, people, use it for what it does and not bash it for what it doesn't."

Damn, I've failed already.

Jason Stamper is technology correspondent of the New Statesman and editor of Computer Business Review.

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.