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  • Newsletter Issue #457

    August 31st, 2008

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    Here’s a hypothetical scenario: What if you were in charge of corporate communications or support for Apple? You knew that lots of people were complaining about 3G performance and dropped calls on the new iPhone. So you were tasked with the job of writing a support document explaining, briefly, why you might not always get good performance from the phone in your location, and some of the things you may or may not be able to do to get better connections.

    On last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I asked a question about this during my session with tech author and commentator Andy Ihnatko. I won’t necessarily say that he ducked the question, although he came close. His point of view would be that providing too much information would open a can of worms, and result in the carriers and chip suppliers blaming each other for potential problems.

    Now I’m not about to dispute Andy, since he’s been covering the tech beat for an awfully long time and does know what he’s talking about. On the other hand, far too many people are expecting a lot more than a mobile phone, however fancy looking, can deliver in the real world. This is not to say that the iPhone is necessarily perfect as it is, when separated from the limitations of wireless networks. Far from it, and Apple is already promising updates soon to address the various issues customers have been reporting.

    Because of its extreme popularity, the iPhone 3G has become just the latest victim of customer wrath, and I remain convinced that Apple can to more to make their expectations, shall we say, a little more realistic.

    Columnist Joe Wilcox, who edits both Apple Watch and Microsoft Watch, was on hand to deliver his views on the latest issues facing both companies. And, listeners, after selling off his iPhone last year in an act of protet because a firmware update bricked some phones, he now has a new iPhone 3G. During the interview, he explained that he had rediscovered the iPhone after a not-very-successful experience with Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader.

    In addition, Julian Miller of Plum Amazing and Script Software gave us all the details about two new iPhone applications from the former. One of those applications is for golfers and the other is a full-featured recording program.

    Moving to another front, on The Paracast this week, meet long-time UFO researcher Robert Hastings, author of “UFOs and Nukes: Extraordinary Encounters at Nuclear Weapons Sites.” The interview will also include frightening information on possible attempts by UFOs to activate our nuclear weapons.

    Coming September 7: UFO investigator Philip J. Imbrogno, author of “Interdimensional Universe: The New Science of UFOs, Paranormal Phenomena & Other Dimensional Beings.” This discussion will cover a wide range of intriguing evidence that will present an amazing picture of the nature and scope of all of these weird events.

    NO, APPLE ISN’T GOING DOWNHILL

    I still remember, nearly 20 years ago, setting up a brand new Macintosh system in my home. Up till then, I did most of my work at the office, but I had seen the future, more or less, and telecommuting was going to be a large part of it, so I had to be prepared.

    Now I had used Macs at the office almost from day one, as soon as they become practical solutions for getting real work done. But I was also losing assignments, because I couldn’t complete them after the workday ended.

    In any case, not 15 minutes after opening QuarkXPress to edit a document, I got a system error prompt. If you remember the days of System 6, there would even be a Restart button in the dialog, but it would rarely do anything, and that was the case this time. So I forced a restart, and got back to work.

    In those days, a stable Mac was one that didn’t crash a couple of times a day, and it was awfully easy for that to happen, particularly if you fitted your Mac with lots of third-party stuff. Even the useful hacks, such as the ones that would allow you to select fonts without going through the drudgery of using the traditional method, Font/DA Mover, could do nasty things. The reason is that the developers had to use unsupported tricks to fool the system into accepting their unorthodox way of handling your font library.

    I suppose we’ve all gotten complacent. Mac OS X is a Unix operating system, and so it should be supremely rugged and incredibly stable. Instead of restarting your Mac several times a day, weeks may go by before that’s necessary. Even then, the restart may be the result of installing new software, such as a system update,  which requires reboots. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be necessary.

    At the same time, an occasional application will crash. But, for the most part, you can just go on working as you have, without worrying about restarts. Sometimes it would make your environment unstable, but an application would have to lots of toxic behavior for that to happen. But more often than not, just relaunching the application would set things right.

    If you compare today’s Mac to the “good old days,” the difference is simply night and day. But when you get a taste of perfection, you will understandably want more of it, and that makes sense. Add to that the fact that all of Apple’s operating system reference upgrades ship a little shaky out of the box. Despite what you’ve heard elsewhere, that, too, is something that has always occurred. It certainly isn’t a recent happening, even though you would hope they’ve learned a few lessons along the way.

    Indeed, you can trace through the history of every system upgrade and you will find the very same situation. System 7.0, for example, could be almost toxic, but 7.0.1 was pretty decent. But it was still bloated compared to System 6, and the 4MB Mac of that time began to look starved of RAM if you tried to run more than a single high-power application at the same time. I had 8MB on my IIci, for example, and I was grateful for the arrival of 32-bit addressing so I could move to 16MB — as soon as I could afford it of course.

    I suppose you could say that the original iPod was pretty solid out of the box, but then again it was just a fancy music player. Even then, Apple released periodic firmware updates to handle one thing or another; more of them as the iPod gained new capabilities, such as video playback.

    With the arrival of the iPhone — don’t forget it uses basically a slimmed down version of Mac OS X –both applications and the system can crash. In fact, some people restart their iPhones once every day or so, just to clear it out and start with a clean slate. I, too, find my iPhone 3G running more stably with this minor maintenance step.

    Yes, it’s true the today’s iPhone software is still somewhat ragged around the seams. Apple admits as much, promising that the forthcoming update, which most published reports label 2.1, will address a host of ills. Perhaps even the basic connectivity issues, such as poor 3G reception and dropped calls, will improve with 2.1. But, as I said in another article, don’t forget the limitations of the cell phone system. There are still far too many variables for a single device, however well engineered, to perform reliably 100% of the time. Even 95% would be a wonderful achievement.

    Since OS X is apparently getting wider and wider deployment among different platforms in the years to come, no wonder Snow Leopard — also known as Mac OS 10.6 — will be largely a system enhancement release devoid of snazzy new features.

    Apple promises a slimmer footprint, meaning it’ll take less disk space. That would be terrific when deployed on a mobile platform, where storage space is at a premium. This can be done not just by optimizing code, but by removing support for certain models.

    Surely, ditching Power PC support will be a significant reason for Snow Leopard to occupy less storage space, since it will no longer have to ship as a Universal Binary. And surprisingly enough, I haven’t heard too many complaints about this possibility, even though some Power PC models are not more than two years old.

    But through it all, I’m not at all happy with the way Apple is handling public information about these matters. When they shook up the MobileMe executive team, for example, with Eddie Cue as its head, the news came in the form of a memo to employees from Steve Jobs. Yes, Apple knew it would leak to the press, and they are even known to have referred some journalists to that document. But why the silly cloak and dagger act?

    Want to know whether Apple is working on fixes for iPhone problems? Just ask the lucky few who actually received terse email responses from Jobs. Yes, they knew they’d be quoted, but is this the sort of behavior you expect from a large multinational corporation? I think not.

    BLU-RAY VERSUS UPCONVERTING REVISITED

    If you’ve tuned in late, there are actually two ways for you to get high-quality DVD playback. The officially-sanctioned method is Blu-ray, the victorious method of presenting high definition videos on your HDTV. The other method simply takes a regular DVD and interpolates the pixels to fill a resolution of 1080p, the standard Blu-ray configuration.

    The advantage of the faux high definition player, the upconverting version, is that it costs but a fraction of what Blu-ray costs. In fact, most ordinary DVD players these days are upconverting. As with the regular high definition source, they generally sport HDMI connections, which handle both the video and digital audio.

    They also can take any old DVD and provide some level of picture enhancement. The Blu-ray player can also handle ordinary DVDs, also upconverted. But the Blu-ray discs, unless they are one of the few versions that also includes a standard DVD video, won’t play on the regular player. They also cost roughly $10 more, but supposedly offer more optional features.

    Right now, Blu-ray is sufficiently new that the library isn’t large. Most of it consists of the newest titles, plus a smattering of older catalog. That ought to change as the price of the players and the software, the discs, come down, the natural consequence of increased production, assuming the format isn’t supplanted by digital downloads.

    Maybe that’s the reason Steve Jobs isn’t putting Blu-ray in new Macs — at least for now.

    For the rest of us, though, the big question is whether the real thing is worth the bother compared to the imitation. While I can’t speak for everyone, I’ve had a chance to try it both ways, courtesy of Panasonic’s moderately priced DMP-BD30 Blu-ray player. Modest? Well, you can get one for less than $350 if you shop around. That may seem pricey, but remember that the first Blu-ray models cost over $1,000, and there are lesser products in the $200 range.

    In any case, using a 50-inch Panasonic TH 50PX80U plasma TV, I did some comparisons to see which direction you might want to go.

    Now looking real close, there is no comparison. Blu-ray, as exemplified by the recent Bruce Willis action epic, Live Free or Die Hard, was razor sharp from the titles to the teletale wrinkles around is aging star’s eyes. Color rendition was simply marvelous. While I didn’t have a standard DVD version at hand, I did play a smattering of upconverted DVDs as a means of rough comparison.

    From the same vantage point, right in front of the set, an ordinary DVD delivers a clearly grainier, fuzzier picture, and somewhat muted color reproduction, despite the image processing shenanigans. But that’s only part of the picture, if you’ll forgive the pun.

    When you are seated at a normal viewing distance, say 10 feet or so, the differences are surprisingly less distinct. Unless you pay close attention you might not even care and that, alas, may be the largest impediment to the rapid advancement of Blu-ray. Why pay more money for something that seems only slightly better, even if the numbers demonstrate a far more drastic difference?

    In the days of VHS versus DVD, there was no possibility of mistaking one for the other. That’s one of the reasons DVD took off so rapidly.

    The electronics and entertainment companies would like lighting to strike twice. They not only hope that you’ll embrace Blu-ray, but be ready to replace your movie library once again. They just love selling you the very same product over and over again.

    But, despite its undeniable attractions, I really believe Blu-ray is going to have a rougher road. I hope I’m wrong, but it doesn’t seem that way, at least so far.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
    Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
    Worldwide Licensing and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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