A lot of the current Apple-related discussion is about future products since not a whole lot is occurring right now. What, for example, is the next iPhone going to be like? Will it look pretty much the same as the current model, except for 3G support and perhaps some other internal enhancements? What about the mysterious Black iPhone that briefly got listed over at AT&T, or was that one of possible Apple's covert tricks to excite you and tantalize you?
Certainly, the fact that the iPhone is basically out of stock, with no promise of when it'll be available again, clearly portends something. Did Apple simply misjudge demand? If that's the case, and they're busy ramping up production of a new model, you may have to just wait for your iPhone. Or call around and maybe you'll find one in stock somewhere.
But if you don't need one today, certainly the next version will probably not cost any more, and the current models, if they are continued, will become cheaper. Sounds good to me, but then I bought my 8GB iPhone the day before the 16GB version came out.
Well, on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, Macworld Editorial Director Jason Snell talked about the possible future of the iPhone. In addition, we also debated the possibilities of a mid-range Mac minitower. You see, although he finds the idea attractive, Jason doesn't think there's enough of a market for that product, and that Apple therefore won't produce it. In light of the success of another niche computer, the MacBook Air, I don't agree.
In the final part of this episode, Jason, whose is a huge TV aficionado, delivered his reviews on the best and worse of this year's fractured TV season.
Author and commentator Kirk McElhearn came aboard to deliver rants and raves about technical support from Apple and other companies.
And Brent Oxley, owner of HostGator, one of the hosts we use for our Web servers, discussed the future of the industry and how to find the best plan for your site.
Moving to another front, on The Paracast this week, there will be a return visit from veteran UFO investigator A.J. Gevaerd, editor of the Brazilian UFO Magazine. In Part II, Gene and David play catch up, talking about the subjects that were left unmentioned in previous episodes.
Although Apple has the reputation of delivering cutting-edge designs, particularly when it comes to the iPod and iPhone, they've been extremely conservative with their personal computers.
The most radical styling exercise was probably the first flat-panel iMac, with its flower-pot base and articulated swinging arm. In retrospect, it wasn't a barn burner when it came to sales, particularly when you compare it to the original pear-shaped iMacs.
Today's iMac, though elegant in its aluminum clad fittings, is actually pretty conservative. It's basically a stylish computer display with the guts carefully inserted in a way that doesn't add significantly to its bulk. Aside from moving from plastic to aluminum, however, recent styling exercises for the iMac have been minimal.
The always-forgotten Mac mini was a neat variant on the PC theme, using basic notebook parts in a case that struck some as half a Cube. I suppose Steve Jobs can't get away from that design, since it's been duplicated in large part with the Apple TV, AirPort Extreme and Time Capsule.
In fact, a recent suggestion for a mid-range expandable Mac desktop calls for a thicker version of the Mac mini. But doesn't that simply get you a Cube all over again?
I suppose it's reasonable to suggest that, after investing a decent amount of R&D cash in internal redesigns and the requisite port of Mac OS X to Intel, Apple didn't want to throw away its existing designs. There may have also been a psychological reason. If the Power PC and Intel Macs all look alike, that means that a Mac is more than just the brand name of the components inside. Having Intel Inside is actually a good thing.
More to the point, earlier this year, I sold off my last Power PC model, a G5 Quad, and installed a Mac Pro in its place. Aside from the clear performance advantages, the look and feel are virtually identical from the vantage point of my display.
Looking at the Mac Pro's case, you have to blink twice to catch the altered front and rear port designs. Yes, the internals are far different, because of the cooler running Intel Xeon processors and the need for fewer fans and elaborate cooling ducts to keep everything from overheating, which allows additional room with which to add hard drives.
Thank heavens liquid cooling is history. I always wondered whether I would awaken one morning, only to find that icky stuff spreading across the carpet from the Power Mac.
But now that Apple's Intel transition is just one of those things that didn't cause a whole lot of havoc -- and in fact, greatly enhanced the compatibility and lust for Macs -- what about those aging case designs?
Perhaps the first foray into overhauling the face of Macs to come was the MacBook Air. Yes, there were strong family similarities, but the slim, beveled case made Apple's return to thin and light far more than a simple niche product. It is, to some people, a fashion statement.
So where does that take us?
Well, there are published reports that the MacBook and MacBook Pro might get new and spiffier looks next. One story has it that the plastics of the MacBook will be history, and it will become aluminum, same as the professional notebook.
One area where Apple might change things is the size of the trackpad, making it larger, like the MacBook Air, to better accommodate the user-friendly flourishes of MultiTouch. Some even suggest that Apple ought to consider a two-button design, the better to provide the infamous right-click support.
Indeed, the Mighty Mouse already showed the way, so I can see where such things might happen.
But trackpads and buttons are trivial. What about the overall look of these notebooks? Are there things Apple can do to revolutionize the now-standard appearance of the portable computer? I mean, whether the case is pretty or not, the basic layout of Mac and Windows notebooks are fundamentally similar. Is there something Apple can do to change things, stir things up?
I wouldn't pretend to have any solid answers here. I am not a professional designer, and I didn't buy a MacBook Pro because of its looks.
On the other hand, the cheese grater style of the Mac Pro may be due for a change, or maybe not. I can see its practical benefits, of course, such as the enhanced cooling of the innards, and it does deliver a fashionably industrial impression, although I still keep the thing under my desk. I suppose most of you do as well. A minitower isn't something you're meant to stare at, so perhaps Apple's priorities are elsewhere.
The iMac seems to be doing quite well, thank you, so I'd imagine near-term changes might involve just making it thinner, and reducing the space around the screen particularly at the bottom
But what about the Mac mini? Does it truly have a future, and is that future confined to a tiny square box with curved corners?
Then again you can probably do lots of positive things to the mini without really making it look all that different. Just providing a simple way to open the bottom of the case with simple screws rather than putty knives or other contraptions would help. Indeed, the internal layout might be reordered to make upgrading more pleasurable. In fact, a double-sized mini could, once again, form the basis for that mythical midrange minitower some of us are talking about.
But as I said, that would signal a second coming of the Cube. But would that make a difference?
It's a whole lot easier than it used to be -- and less expensive -- to call someone in another country. Even if your local phone company doesn't have an economical international calling plan, an Internet phone provider, such as Packet8 or Vonage, will have an affordable flat-rate solution. Well, mostly, because the fine print always states that calls to mobile phones cost a lot extra, for some unfathomable reason. So gouging is gouging.
When my son, Grayson, decided to take a vacation in Spain, where he spent a semester last fall, he considered buying calling cards again, or a prepaid mobile phone. The overseas calling rates for AT&T were just not suited for a recent college graduate on a tight budget, even though his RAZR was fully compatible with Spain's GSM network.
Now I had suggested he use Skype, but you know about kids. They follow their own instincts, and it takes a while for them to grow accustomed to the idea that their parents aren't complete dolts. Well, perhaps Grayson is slowing coming to the latter conclusion as well, because I found him in a receptive mood when he sent me an instant message from his black MacBook the other day. He was using a friend's Wi-Fi connection while spending a few days in Madrid, so I suggested he download Skype and give it a try.
No protests, to my amazement, and in a few minutes, he had created his new account and we were talking voice. I then switched the connection to my MacBook Pro, so we could get a visual hookup as well. While the motion wasn't so fluid, his robust voice was loud and clear. Apple has the right idea to offer a noise reduction feature for its built in mics. All we heard was a soft hiss, rather than the background din from his busy surroundings.
While computer to computer calls are free, Skype isn't a fully no-cost service. You pay for the SkypeIn and SkypeOut features, which allow you to receive and place calls to conventional phones too. But the rates are modest, usually a couple of cents per minute, with several flat-rate plans available.
You can't, however, use Skype to replace your local phone service, since they don't offer 911 support. However, in addition to talking to my son while he's on his European adventure, I use Skype heavily for the two radio shows. You see, audio quality is far superior to any phone connection I know of, even if the person you're talking to is on a regular phone. Recent versions of the Mac and Windows Skype apps have offered improved call quality and more reliable connections, although we still get occasional lapses and disconnects.
What's more, you can do conference calls, which is great for such things as our Mac and UFO roundtable discussions. Even better, if the participants all have decent mics and smooth connections, it sounds as good as any radio network I've heard, and you can't beat the price! In fact, some of the listeners to The Paracast still believe that David Biedny and I are in the same studio, even though we are 2,500 miles apart.
In fact, Skype even delivers better audio on phone calls than the digital hybrid telephone adapter I previously used to record phone conversations. That device, the JK Audio Broadcast Host, has been catching dust of late.
At the same time, Skype's owner, eBay, is still figuring out what to do with the company it paid billions to acquire. Typical of far too many acquisitions in the tech industry, eBay's executives didn't really conceive of a true vision for how the two companies might find synergies. There are even reports of late that eBay may want to cast Skype out to find its own way, even though that company remains profitable.
As for me, I welcome Skype. But sometimes I wonder what might happen if outside calling features were crafted on to iChat. Would that be a killer phone app -- or just an also-ran?
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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