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  • Newsletter Issue #496

    May 31st, 2009

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    When a Florida startup began to advertise their plans to sell cheap PCs equipped with Mac OS X, the media couldn't stop talking about them (and we'll have more to say about that in the next article ). Well, months after that company, Psystar, was sued by Apple because of their temerity, they went Chapter 11. The betting is that their chances of recovering at the other side of the filing are slim to none.

    So on last week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we explored the Psystar matter and the recent claims of a ComputerWorld writer that the FTC should investigate Apple for its failure to observe care in protecting us from potential security threats.

    Now the latter seems strange enough in the scheme of things, since Mac OS X malware is a rarity by anyone's estimate, even the companies who hope to sell you security software. But I suppose it was a quiet week and some media people were desperate to get hits for their sites.

    Along for the ride was Adam Engst, Editor/Publisher of TidBITS and commentator and Special Correspondent David Biedny. You can expect, of course, that Adam took a basically serious view of these subjects, while David's unique approach was also quite humorous.

    In addition, David explored whether we’ve topped out as far as our needs for PC power are concerned, and maybe we have, at least until apps catch up.

    You’ll also heard from Product Manager Patrick Nugent, of Roxio, on their new product that lets you easily dub your old VHS home videos onto your Mac’s DVD.

    This week on our other radio show, The Paracast, UFO author, researcher and lecturer L.A. Marzulli discusses UFOs, their possible origin and the impact of Biblical prophecies on present-day events.

    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." You can get them for $14.95, each, plus shipping, and you can select from most popular sizes.

    FINDING THE RIGHT INSECTICIDE FOR THE MAC CLONE INSECT POPULATION

    You know the feeling. You find some tiny crawling and airborne critters in your home, so you call the exterminator to get rid of them pronto. However, a few weeks later, and they're back again, sometimes in greater numbers than before.

    In our corner of the universe, the Mac clone insect population was first seeded when Apple switched to Intel processors. Soon they would be delivering Macs build with essentially the same components as a Windows PC. Well, not quite, since Apple bypassed the BIOS of the typical PC in favor of Intel's Extensible Firmware Interface (EFI for short), a more modern method of configuring low-level functions during a computer's boot-up process.

    As you might expect, power users quickly devised methods to induce Mac OS X to install on generic PC hardware anyway, and a small but widespread community has grown up to support the practice. Indeed, Macworld published an article about just such a project, in which they built a "Hackentosh" that ran quite well, thank you, on Mac OS X before it was reformatted as a Windows PC and returned to conventional duty.

    During this process, Apple didn't go out of its way to stop the practice, since only a small number of people were involved, and they weren't exactly engaged in a retail business of violating Apple's user license. That license, as most of you realize, restricts installation of Mac OS X to Apple hardware.

    I realize some of you might find that practice objectionable, but it's not unusual in various industries. You would not, for example, expect to put a Schick blade in your Gillette razor. Epson print cartridges don't run on Canon printers, although I suppose one could, if they wanted, transfer the ink from one to the other, and the product would probably still function.

    In any case, once the practice of building unofficial Mac clones expanded to someone's retail business, the tables turned. A startup company in Florida, Psystar, began to sell a line of Open Computers at their online store, equipped with Mac OS X.

    Understand that Psystar had no prior history selling computers on a retail basis, not even in the Windows PC market, where there are thousands of players ranging from tiny storefront assemblers to major manufacturers such as Dell and HP. However, the tech press quickly latched on to the company, and we all wondered when or if Apple might respond.

    Within a few months, the other shoe dropped, as Apple filed the expected lawsuit, which forced Psystar to hire a high-priced legal firm specializing in intellectual property issues. The war had begun, but depositions revealed some curious things about Psystar. Their CEO, for example, was evidently unable to answer basic questions about the company's sales and general financial status.

    In short order, Psystar filed an expected Chapter 11 petition. Their expected lifetime as a working concern is probably limited, although the Web site was still offering products for sale as of this writing.

    Other than a couple of companies engaged in a similar practice overseas, the climate seemed quiet enough until, just a few days later, yet another cloner sprouted up, Quo Computer, which is launching a retail store this coming week. Their products, dubbed Life Q, Pro Q and Max Q, are offered as fancy but still cheap competitors to Apple's lineup. Somehow the company feels moving upscale will somehow allow them to get some sales and still stay ahead of Apple's legal eagles.

    In contrast, Psystar simply repackaged off-the-shelf PC hardware. Really basic stuff, in the fashion of the original licensed Mac OS cloners back in the 1990s.

    Now I don't expect Quo Computer to survive for an extended period either. Even if they could keep Apple's law firm at bay for a while, the larger question is whether enough people truly care about buying costly gear from unknown companies with no history for service and support, even if they could save a reasonable sum of money.

    That may explain Psystar's problem. While it does appear that they did ship some product, it's not as if large numbers of Mac users decided to sidestep Apple's Mac product line and take a chance with a startup vendor. I can see that happening quickly on the PC side of the ledger, where the typical power user will just go back to the OEM vendor for a part in order to get service if the computer manufacturer goes under.

    Yes, I suppose that can happen with a Hackintosh as well, but the sort of people Apple generally caters to seek a bundled solution from a reputable company, one whom they can always count on for good support. Is that worth spending extra for the product? I suspect most of you would answer yes.

    What makes matters more difficult for Quo Computer is the fact that another company in their niche market is poised to go belly-up soon. Why would they believe they'd fare any better? Even if they somehow beat Apple in the courts, or bought extra time via the appeal process after losing (the expected outcome), would they suddenly begin to attract enough customers to remain profitable after paying those monumental legal bills?

    Now maybe one of Apple's allegations in its lawsuit against Psystar was correct after all. Perhaps that company was merely a stalking horse for a larger player hoping to test the validity of Apple's user license. With Psystar's impending demise all but certain, maybe they could say the same of Quo Computer, which appeared almost out of nowhere.

    Or maybe not. But I don't think there's enough market potential for a would-be Mac cloner, even if they could get away with it. And since that prospect of that happening appears slim to none, why even bother? Unless they believe that, like insects, as soon as Apple swats down one, another will appear in its place, and maybe the lawsuits will eventually just stop.

    COX SHOWS HOW TO USE LIES AND DISINFORMATION TO LOSE CUSTOMERS

    As most of you know, when the Steinberg family moved into its present residence nearly three years ago, I signed up for a bundle deal with Cox Communications that included cable TV, Internet and telephone service. For the most part, as you regular readers know, I've been pretty satisfied with their services.

    However -- and this holds true with all the cable companies -- they have been slow to roll out large numbers of high definition TV channels. For example, they promised, at various times, to have between 65 and 100 stations available by the end of 2008. The number ended up being less than 50, and some of our favorites were missing.

    Now one of the positive aspects of retail sales these days is flat panel TVs. They are moving off the shelves in record numbers. In part, that's because of the switch in the U.S. from analog to digital TV transmission. Why buy a converter for an old set, when you can get a brand new one that also includes high definition for hundreds rather than thousands of dollars? In addition, many families are now opting for in-home entertainment in place of extended travel, visits to upscale restaurants, theme parks and so forth and so on.

    The situation caused a dilemma for the cable TV providers because they only have so much bandwidth to go around. One solution is to move analog channels to digital. It forces customers to get digital converters, but it also frees up space of for more high definition offerings. Other network upgrades are being installed to further increase capacity.

    Indeed, on two occasions our cable TV service (and Internet, which uses the same cabling) was down for nearly a day to allow for installation of new equipment. A few months later a dozen HD stations were added. That takes us to the end of last year, and all I've seen since are broken promises.

    More recently it reached a head and the answers became more and more confused.

    Recently, in order to fix a reception problem, several service people came down, and all claimed that Cox would add a whole bunch of high definition offerings between the middle of May and June. All well and good, but it hasn't happened, at least in my neighborhood.

    So I telephoned Cox the other day and asked what was going on. Someone in sales told me 16 stations had been added as of May 19th, and even gave me the list. Except that none of those stations appeared on our HD DVR. They switched me to service, who confirmed the information, but they couldn't figure out what went wrong. This time, they dispatched a service tech to my home.

    The tech said he had heard the same thing, but that the change evidently hadn't filtered down to our neighborhood. After talking with no less than four more people at Cox that afternoon and evening, I got multiple explanations as to what was going on. In the end, the "head end" or transmission center that handles this neighborhood had not been upgraded so far. One person said that the additional channels would be deployed as of mid-July, while another said the activation date had not been determined.

    I'm sure you've gathered at this point that this whole sorry episode left a seriously sour taste in my mouth, and not from the last container of yogurt I consumed. Clearly Cox is running into technical difficulties in its efforts to match satellite TV in high definition offerings.

    It was time to seek other options.

    When I signed up for the Cox Bundle, the cable TV package cost less than the satellite providers. That was then, this is now.

    After doing some research, I have decided that maybe DirecTV would be a better option. The number one satellite service has garnered quite a high rating compared to the competition, including cable, in various surveys. According to a recent issue of Consumer Reports: "This satellite-TV provider scored significantly higher than the major cable companies and rival Dish Network for TV picture, sound, and channel selection, with 150 high-def channels at the latest count, compared with 75 or so for AT&T and 35 to 50 for most cable companies."

    DirectTV also had an enticing package that included several rebates. All told, pricing is very similar to what Cox charges, and its HD-DVR offers far more storage capacity, true 1080p picture quality on On Demand programming (equivalent, roughly speaking, to Blu-ray DVD) and superior programming options. There's even an iPhone app to schedule shows while you're on the road.

    Our DirectTV installation is scheduled for Tuesday morning. If Cox representatives are reading this, they can expect my cancellation notice for cable TV service 72 hours later, assuming DirectTV's service and picture quality fulfills our expectations. I am, as they say, hopeful, but the conclusion to this story has yet to be written.

    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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