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  • Newsletter Issue #535

    February 28th, 2010

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    So, as one writer suggested recently, is giving up Google akin to giving up cigarettes, assuming the habit is long-lived? Maybe. Maybe not. But the real question is whether it’s a necessary move, and that depends on your belief in whether Google is protecting your privacy and, of course, whether they are delivering the services that you want.

    Just about anything Google offers you, from search to email, Web-based and otherwise, is available from other sources. Of course, you may have to then decide whether the replacement is a safe, protected alternative, or you are just trading labels with the same potential pitfalls?

    I don’t pretend to have any final answers for you. That’s a decision you will have to make for yourself. As I’ve said earlier, I still use Google for search, and I maintain a Gmail account, but I rarely use their Webmail, so I’m not exposed to many of the targeted ads. We also use Google’s AdSense here, to generate a little extra income.

    Now on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, author and commentator Kirk McElhearn explained why he’s working hard to banish Google from his Macs, since he regards the service as potentially harmful to your privacy. That very subject was also covered from a somewhat different point of view by Adam Engst, of TidBITS and Take Control Books. Adam also discussed the surprising success of Macworld Expo 2010, which was held without Apple’s participation.

    In another segment, Lee Givens, an AOL Mac product manager, talked about some of the service’s future plans, and profiled their newest application updates for the Mac and iPhone, which include seamless integration with Face-book, Twitter and other popular social networking services.

    This week on our other show, The Paracast, special guest co-host Frank Warren are joined by researcher Scott Ramsey to revisit the controversial Aztec, New Mexico UFO crash. Real, fake or something in between?

    Coming March 7: Our guest co-host Frank Warren returns as we present the “czar” of conspiracy theorists, Jim Marrs, who joins The Paracast to discuss the classic cases. You’ll hear about the Kennedy Assassination, 9/11, the UFO mystery and lots more.

    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 selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.

    WHEN IS A STORY NOT A STORY?

    Those of you who have been following the ongoing 27-inch iMac soap opera are aware of the reports about display defects. These include screen flickering and a yellowish tinge. Early on, some newly-minted owners, including Macworld magazine, got units with cracked screens. Worse, this hot-selling model was particularly difficult to get, unless you were ready to wait two or three weeks for yours to arrive.

    Now to put my cards on the table, I ordered one of the optional versions equipped with the quad-core Intel Core i7 processor in late November. I didn’t choose Apple, because MacMall was offering a $100 rebate, but I didn’t wait any longer than Apple’s promised delivery date. It took a little over a week to arrive.

    I was certainly concerned when I picked up the unit from the local UPS Store, where we receive our business mail. No, I didn’t open the box at the store; I waited till I returned to my home office. As I drove home, I recalled a comment suggesting that Apple, in its quest to be environmentally compliant, used boxes that were just too thin, without sufficient protection, thus making the delicate contents more susceptible to damage.

    But that’s not quite true. If you compare the container used for the 27-inch iMac with that used by loads of TV makers for similarly sized displays, you’ll see Apple’s is no thinner. Most important, my brand new Mac was absolutely undamaged, not that I expected it to be any other way.

    In a few minutes, I had the unit all connected and powered it on. The screen came up in the normal fashion, and as I went through the Setup Assistant and started the data migration from an external FireWire 800 drive, I looked over the image real carefully. The picture didn’t flicker, and the color uniformity was near perfect. But I am sympathetic to the plight of those who did encounter problems.

    The reports, however, persisted. There were hundreds of pages on Apple’s support forums devoted to the subject. While the problem reports were troubling, it’s also true that the threads consisted of a smaller number of people posting extremely often.

    During this period, Apple released two firmware updates, one addressing the graphics card, the other the display. The combination reportedly eliminated most or all of the flickering defects, and that yellowish cast. In releasing the second update on February 1st, Apple’s support document stated: “If your screen remains black after applying the update, contact AppleCare or an Apple Authorized Service Provider. If you continue to experience image corruption or display flickering, make sure you have also installed the 27-inch iMac Graphics Firmware Update 1.0. If you are still having display issues after successfully completing both firmware updates, contact AppleCare or an Apple Authorized Service Provider.”

    That should have been the end of the matter, although there is now a new story, published this past week, which pretty much says the same thing. Only this is presented as a brand new revelation, an apparent attempt to gain closure over this episode. But didn’t that happen on the first of February when Apple released that second firmware update?

    What changed between then and now?

    I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps Apple wanted to make sure there were no lingering customer concerns about iMac picture quality before making a final statement. Leaving any unanswered questions would certainly impact sales, and now that Apple appears to be catching up when it comes to supplying the 27-inch iMac in a timely fashion, a renewed public relations offensive certainly makes sense.

    Or perhaps one enterprising reporter asked the right question at the right time, but you know that Apple has their own priorities, and asking a question doesn’t guarantee the expected response or any response.

    To put things in perspective, the initial problems with the iMac are typical of early-production defects, defects of the sort that can occur with any mass-produced consumer electronics product. I really don’t need to trace the history of all the gear Apple has produced over the years. If you’ve been with me for the past decade or even before the site debuted, you know there have been many Macs that shipped with production defects, some far worse than a flickering screen or a random band of yellow.

    However, Apple commands a whole lot more attention in the media these days, which means every single misstep, however slight, is sufficient to generate lots of bad press. Indeed, you can bet that severe product defects would make it to the front pages of many newspapers, meaning that Apple has to tread carefully.

    This also means that Apple may actually be forced to work that much harder as they traverse the endless road to perfection, and that’s a good thing. But if they do fall down on the job, you can be assured they’ll hear about it from me, from you, and from millions of other owners of their products. In the end, they have to listen carefully, now more than ever.

    DESPITE WINDOWS 7, MICROSOFT’S MARKET SHARE CONTINUES TO ERODE

    When Windows 7 arrived last October, some media pundits were quick to suggest that Apple’s ascendancy would stall and Microsoft would regain what little it lost of its huge share of the market. There was little hope that it would be otherwise.

    Of course, I’m inclined to remember what Steve Jobs said at a certain Macworld Expo years ago, when Microsoft agreed to invest $150 million in Apple stock. At the time, Jobs said that the operating system wars were over. Microsoft won, and that, as they say, was that.

    Clearly, Apple has carved out a sizable niche for itself since then. Over three million Macs are sold every quarter, more than Apple was able to move in a full year not so many years ago. Even though the economy put a damper on personal computer sales in 2009, Apple managed, after a somewhat mediocre quarter, to regain its momentum.

    According to Quantcast, a company that measures Internet usage, in January 2010 Microsoft Windows accounted for an 86.8% share in North America, while Mac OS X had 10.9%. Over the past year, the Mac’s portion of the PC marketplace grew 29 percent, while Windows shed 3.8 percent.

    All right, not too shabby for a company that was once given up for lost. It’s particularly encouraging to see Windows dip below 90%. More to the point, while Microsoft had a good three months or so with stable results, Apple has resumed its growth curve.

    This isn’t to say that Microsoft is taking all this sitting down. Clearly they are spending a boatload of money promoting the joys of Windows 7. But the TV ads I’ve seen are perfectly awful, consisting of silly “PC people” touting some useless Windows 7 feature as something they invented. Go figure.

    You wonder whether Microsoft’s marketing people have enough taste to understand the failings of their sales approach. I mean, are they actually polling their customers or potential customers to judge the quality of their spots? Do they receive emails or letters via snail mail proclaiming the wonders of Windows 7 and why they are so glad they switched?

    What about the majority of Windows users still using XP? How is Microsoft going to convince them to upgrade? Or are they hoping that system admins will do their part or perhaps third-party repair shops will be happy to handle the upgrade chores for them at an appropriate fee?

    Then again, it may very well be possible that Microsoft signed a deal with PC makers to make the XP to Windows 7 upgrade so difficult that most customers would opt to buy new PCs rather than put up with the grief. Still, the biggest factor in PC growth these days is the netbook, a source of minimal profits. Worse, if the netbook isn’t preloaded with some version of Linux, there’s also a high probability that it’ll arrive with Windows XP. Talk about adding insult to injury.

    Of course, such lame ad campaigns as Dell’s “Yours is Here” spots also go a long way towards convincing customers that the PC is the wrong way to go.

    All this doesn’t mean that Microsoft and Apple will soon exchange market share percentages any time soon, Microsoft’s long-term prospects aren’t so terrific, however. They will have to make huge changes to fix their systemic problems, and you have to wonder whether management has a clue that anything is actually wrong.

    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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    One Response to “Newsletter Issue #535”

    1. dfs says:

      When is a story not a story? Well, how much of a story the 27-in iMac displays problems actually was largely depends on how prevalent these issues really were, and this something we know very little about. And, as Gene says, new products tend to have teething problems, that isn’t very newsworthy. The real story is how Apple chose to handle it. And here, the final mark on their report card turns out not to be at all bad. At first they responded with their usual wall of silence for at least three reasons: a.) fear of hurting sales of a new and highly promising product, b.) fear of legal repercussions (even trash lawsuits with no merit cost time and money to defend), c.) it may have taken a while for their engineers to figure out what was wrong and how to fix it. But they were great about supplying replacement units, putting out firmware patches in a timely manner, offering rebates to affected customers, and finally acknowledging that the problem was a real one. So nobody who bought a bad unit directly from Apple got seriously burned (I’m not sure what happened to people who bought units from mail-order jobbers, who often have a no return policy on Macs, but Apple can hardly take the blame for that).

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