THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE
Are you ready for the replicator? No, not the nano creatures who emerged as villains in the various iterations of the Stargate TV series. I'm thinking more in terms of the original, the one in Star Trek, used to create your piping hot steak dinner from the raw ingredients.
Of course, they'd rag upon the shortcomings of simulated food compared to fresh in the 23rd century, but maybe such devices are closer at hand, in the form of today's 3D printers.
So on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we presented Braydon Moreno, founder and CEO of ROBO 3D, a company that designs and builds moderately-priced 3D printers. He covered the industry's views on how to make the product mainstream, along with some of the things you can do with existing gear, such as making chess pieces, spare parts, and even chocolate.
According to Moreno, it may take a decade to be able to make a steak and baked potato dinner with a 3D printer, but that time appears inevitable. During the interview, I also asked about being able to manufacture large items, such as an auto, via some form of 3D printing, and how it might impact auto workers. But 3D printers are today used for modeling by architects and designers. One of those printers, by the way, a high-end product from MakerBot, is known as the Replicator. Life imitating art.
You also heard from Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer, whose bill of fare covered the possibilities for Apple's rumored iWatch, bitcoin, the digital currency, Apple's environmental policies, and the philosophy behind Apple University.
From columnist Rob Pegoraro, who writes for USA Today and Yahoo: He talked about recent security scares, such as the claim that a Russian crime ring stole some 1.2 billion usernames and passwords from online accounts. Are these claims to be believed? You also heard his views about smartwatches, including the potential for an iWatch from Apple.
On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: In response to a recent article from New York magazine about the alleged sad state of the UFO field, cutting-edge theorist Micah Hanks joins Gene, Chris and forum moderator Goggs Mackay to suggest that the most productive research is actually going underground. He expresses the thought in a recent blog, Micah Hanks | News From the Edge. So is it time to give up on Ufology and let it die a well-deserved death, or find ways to make it relevant all over again?
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! We're taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: "Separating Signal From Noise." We've also added a huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.
IF THERE'S A COMPETITIVE THREAT, IT MUST BE ABOUT APPLE
After being the tech media's darling as the company that would take over the mobile handset industry and destroy Apple, Samsung is finding the traveled road more and more difficult. Sales are flat or declining, and profits are down. They are being hit on the high end by Apple, and on the low end by some new Asian manufacturers, particularly Xiaomi.
To add insult to injury, Xiaomi is clearly making a bid to reach a wider market with their low-cost gear. The initial move in that direction was to hire a former Google executive to handle International sales, although there's no clear message of a major push into the U.S. But you can still find the products listed at Amazon.
Now Apple and Samsung don't always compete for the same customers. Apple has concentrated mostly in the premium category, although you can get an iPhone free with a wireless contract or extended payment plan. That, indeed, is Apple's way to reach a wider audience in China, India and elsewhere without sacrificing profits.
It's also clear, though, that Apple is never going to rush to the low end to move lots of product at the expense of decent profits. That approach is quite different from companies who believe that, if you sell enough gear for little or no profit, it means good cash flow and decent profits, eventually, but not now. The hope and the dream is to build market share, and let the rest take care of itself. Reminds me of Amazon, and their current outlook doesn't look so great.
So that approach doesn't always work so well in the real world. Apple continues to report high profits, Samsung continues to suffer from trying to compete in all markets. But you know who gets blamed? Well, Apple of course. Everything is Apple's fault even when the company isn't even involved.
So are lots of people choosing an Xiaomi smartphone, which uses an Android variant known as MIUI, over an iPhone? Since they compete in different price categories, the answer is probably not so much. Instead, buyers who select the Xiaomi are likely shopping against similar products from Samsung and loads of no-name companies. How often does the iPhone enter the picture?
Well, I suppose surveys of new buyers would tell the tale, but how often are those surveys done, and what are the results?
The long and short of it is that Apple chooses not to play in certain markets. You can get a cheap iPod, for example, but the iPhone is not so cheap unless the price is subsidized. The iPad lies at the high end of the price spectrum, today, but it was still cheaper than the competition when it first arrived. In order to beat Apple's pricing, other companies had to sacrifice profits. No tech company can beat Apple when it comes to getting the raw materials at the lowest possible prices, so something has to give.
Macs? Again, Apple chooses not to play in the $300-400 PC desktop or $500 notebook arenas. There's no profit to be made, and a lot of that gear is absolute junk. These products may work for a time, but the longevity won't be near as good as a Mac, or at least the average Mac, since Apple ships defective gear too from time to time.
You can match a Mac with an equivalent PC in terms of specs and similar bundled software, but suddenly the price advantage vanishes. In fact, a Mac Pro is usually far less expensive than a similarly-configured workstation from any of the major PC makers, including Dell and HP. Indeed, some have tried to shop build-it-yourself PCs without being able to meet or beat Apple's prices, and, yes, I agree the Mac Pro isn't cheap.
This isn't to say that Apple isn't being hit by the competition from everywhere. Microsoft is trying to sell a Surface 3 against the MacBook Air, though it's not a terribly credible alternative. Samsung routinely attempts to demonstrate a Galaxy smartphone's perceived advantages against the iPhone. Still, the most significant remaining advantage is mostly about the larger display size, and that's an advantage that will soon disappear if the rumors about the iPhone 6 are correct.
Still, Apple didn't get where it is with smoke and mirrors. By setting the standard for personal computers, smartphones, tablets and, earlier, with digital music players, the competition is always gunning for them. So even when one of those products isn't directly competitive, the illusion of a two- or multiple-horse race makes for good copy and lots of hits. That's true even when the comparisons aren't always accurate.
What's more, Apple still has to continue to earn its keep, and the promised products, and the ones that are expected, must be insanely great. Apple has even fewer excuses if anything introduced in the next few months is ho-hum. Even something superior will be greeted skeptically regardless. There are already imagined comparisons pitting the iPhone 6, unreleased, against the existing gear, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5. That comes even before the final specs are known.
Apple is certainly in a place where the vultures remain ready to topple them from the top of the mountain.
WHEN DOUBLE THE SPEED ISN'T DOUBLE THE SPEED
Faced with the impending arrival — or threat — of gigabit Internet, the cable companies are doing their level best to boost the services they have. Just the other day, in fact, I noticed a targeted ad on a site claiming that Cox, the local cable company, had doubled speeds for broadband.
Now as most of you know, I got a sweetheart deal with rival CenturyLink, a traditional telecom, for ADSL, with download speeds at 40 megabits and uploads at 20 megabits. I'm paying less than $38 a month for this service, which includes a static IP number for easier access to the web servers. So it's not as if I'm ready to move to another provider, although the promise of gigabit speeds will be tempting.
Still, I checked what Cox was offering for my area, and found no change despite the promise. The ad was false! The top speed in my neighborhood is still 150 megabits down and 20 megabits up, at $79.99 of the first 12 months. After that it reverts to $99.99. It's the same offer I saw a few months ago when I checked for alternatives to CenturyLink.
Not that I wouldn't like to have faster speeds, but I'm more concerned about uploads. What I receive from CenturyLink is plenty fast for my needs, and the price is terrific.
The other question is whether 150 megabits is a genuine promise. Last time I had Cox, I was promised 55 megabits, and that's the speed that appeared when I used their own testing site. But all other speed tests I checked revealed speeds that were, at best, a little over 30 megabits. Cox's excuse? So long as it works properly on their own test site, the promises have been met, even if real world measurements produce a different result. That's not an unusual situation.
Not long ago, one of my colleagues said he was happy with his 200 megabit Time Warner cable service in Austin, only he wasn't getting anything near the promised speeds. His benchmarks revealed actual download speeds of 80 megabits or lower, which is hardly in keeping with the promised score.
Unfortunately, it's not unusual to receive less than you paid for, but ISPs, in general, will use the "up to" fine print to still claim that the performance level you achieve is what was advertised. Still, I'm sure you'd like to get what you paid for, and it seems that I am.
So when I do benchmarks of CenturyLink with a cross-section of speed test sites, they range from the mid-30s to the mid-40s download speed, and roughly 18-19 megabits for uploads. That's close enough to the company's promise, but perhaps I'm lucky. I see complaints from other customers that they rarely achieve anything near what they are paying for.
Here in the Phoenix area, there's the promise of gigabit Internet from, yes, Cox — Gig Life they call it — and it's scheduled to roll out starting this fall. The final price hasn't been advertised, but AT&T's GigaPower service, now appearing in many of their market areas, comes in two price tiers. For $70 per month, you must endure targeted ads. It's $99 if you go ad-free.
Their current deal for Austin, one of the first cities to feature GigaPower, calls for 300 megabits for some customers till their neighborhoods are upgraded, but there appears to be no discount for accepting less than a third the speed and waiting.
While I have no idea what sort of deal Cox is planning for Gig Life, I would think the $70 starting point, with ads, would be more than competitive. But since there will be no other service in Phoenix that comes close — and CenturyLink is evidently working on pushing 100 megabits through old fashioned copper wires — I suppose they could do anything they want and get away with it within reason.
Still, I was a little bummed out when the promise of double the current speeds turned out to be a fantasy. Had the existing 50 megabits service, at $49.99 per month, increasing to $62.99 after a year, been boosted to 100 megabits, I might have considered whether it was worth the extra money.
Then again, if CenturyLink would offer 80-100 megabits for the same price I'm paying now, I would be sorely tempted to stay. You see, I'm already getting quite enough performance from the current service for Netflix streaming. Software downloads from Apple and elsewhere are quick enough, and I'm able to upload content to the web servers without long delays.
Maybe it's a matter of being more concerned about the money, and thus I am deluding myself into accepting inferior speeds. But they aren't inferior for my needs, and so I'm content — for now.
Then again, I once believed that five megabits was as fast as I'd ever need.
THE FINAL WORD
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