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  • Newsletter Issue #554

    July 11th, 2010

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    When I write these newsletters, I'm normally sending them out several days after the most recent episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, but things are different this week, the result of our move to Saturday night because of our new syndication deal with GCN.

    Having a network radio show (two in fact) is something I would never have expected when I returned to broadcasting in 2003. At the time, I was simply experimenting with new possibilities, and the prospects of an online radio show were ultimately appealing.

    In the early days, however, it was just a matter of having a show ready each week, with no expectation that it would become a permanent fixture. As the format was refined, and the guest list expanded, the possibilities grew. First there were podcasts, courtesy of Apple iTunes.

    And now it's back to the beginning for us. Even though the shows will be available to local radio stations in the U.S., they will also remain online and will be posted in podcast versions for your convenience. We have a worldwide audience.

    As to this week's second beginning, we introduce Mac|Life Senior Editor Susie Ochs to cover the latest and greatest Apple Inc. news, including the iPhone.

    Lance Ulanoff, Editor-in-Chief of PCMag.com, returns to discuss the facts surrounding the iPhone 4 antenna problem, the best ways to prepare your YouTube videos and a quick survey of free Windows security software.

    Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus comes aboard to talk about his newest book, "iPhone 4 for Dummies," co-authored with USA Today's Ed Baig, and to list a few of his favorite iPad apps.

    This week on our other show, The Paracast, we present a special co-host "Paranormal Roundtable," featuring Greg Bishop, Paul Kimball,Christopher O'Brien and Nicholas Redfern. Learn how it all began and where we are going with The Paracast.

    Coming July 18: Co-host Christopher O'Brien presents author and publisher David Hatcher Childress, who talks about his intensive research into advanced ancient civilizations, the possibilities of Ancient Astronauts and whether the Moon is artificial.

    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.

    IS THE PUBLIC TURNING AGAINST APPLE?

    So I talked to a local hair stylist the other day, someone whom I regard as reasonably tech savvy, and he told me why he would never buy an iPhone 4. "Too many problems," he said, although he wasn't able to name anything specific.

    He wasn't alone in expressing that viewpoint. My wife said she'd heard the same thing a number of times on 24/7 cable TV, and wondered why I'd consider upgrading. "Isn't your old iPhone working all right? Why cause trouble for yourself?"

    Barbara is smart and practical. Even though she knows that I can sell off my current iPhone for essentially the same amount of money that I paid for it originally, she was thinking about my comfort and convenience.

    Now I have never had serious trouble with an Apple product. The closest I came was the cursed PowerBook 5300ce that I bought in 1995. Apple was in the doldrums then, and they made some really foolish decisions that I won't bother to list. The 5300 series was also late to market, because the original batteries began to smoke in lab tests, and I had to return mine several times for various and sundry repairs. But for small things, mostly cosmetic.

    Of course, that was also before Steve Jobs returned to the company, and Apple began its incredible resurgence. Even though some of their gear has been included in extend repair programs to fix assorted ills, Macs and mobile gadgets all get generally high marks for reliability.

    So just what is there about the iPhone 4 that's causing such negative perceptions?

    Well, so far as I can tell, there is really only one notable problem to report, and it's debatable whether it's unique to the iPhone or even a major shortcoming. While it's easy to say that Apple screwed up big time in exposing the antennas and thus making them vulnerable to severe losses of sensitivity if you hold them the "wrong way," it does appear to be true that most any handheld wireless device is vulnerable to such symptoms.

    This is particularly true in recent years, after most handset makers abandoned external antennas, pull-out or otherwise, and started placing them at the base of the unit, the better to survive government radiation testing with good scores. Now I don't pretend to know for certain whether a mobile phone can fry your brain, but certainly you want to be assured that radiation levels are kept at a minimum.

    Unfortunately, if you accidentally — or deliberately — shield those antennas in a certain way, there will be a loss of sensitivity. The question is not whether it exists, but whether the impact is sufficient to cause serious trouble.

    Of course, when you see a five bar signal drop to one or two, you have to feel cheated, even though it may well be that the loss in signal quality isn't quite that severe. Well, at least that's true if you believe Apple's excuse that such severe symptoms are caused mostly by an overly-optimistic signal strength display. In a few weeks, they promise to have a fix. So you will no longer see five bars when there ought to be one or two.

    It sort of reminds me of the fuel gauges in most cars. They seem to take forever to drop to the halfway mark, after which the descent to empty seems to happen so rapidly you wonder whether there's really enough gas in the tank for even a short drive.

    But you see when you're talking about public perceptions, facts really don't matter. Enough negative publicity and even a company with an utterly perfect reputation will suffer. Yes, antenna experts, even Consumer Reports, have examined the iPhone 4 and determined that there are no serious reception problems. If anything, it usually works better than its predecessors and other phones in marginal reception areas.

    Unfortunately, that state of affairs may lull the owner into a false sense of security, largely because you're seeing five bars when it should be two or three. At a reduced signal level, it doesn't take much attenuation to drop a call. And it's not just holding your hand the wrong way. You may tilt or move the phone a few feet and also cause a noticeable signal loss. That's the way things are with two-way radio, which is precisely what a cell phone is.

    You have to wonder just how many sales Apple might be losing because people perceive the iPhone 4 as seriously flawed, even though the reality is quite different. Yes, it's true that they still can't build enough to meet demand. at least for now. On the long haul, competitors, such as Verizon Wireless, are exploiting the situation with their own ads.

    It doesn't matter that you can replicate a similar signal drop if you hold a Droid and other competing smartphones the wrong way. Facts don't matter in the advertising world, where hype is everything.

    If there's a saving grace to all this, it's the fact that, in taking several weeks to adjust the signal strength algorithm for iPhones, Apple's developers might be striving to improve real (not imagined) reception quality with their upgraded software. So the iPhone 4 with iOS 4.0.1 may be perceived as a much better product, even if the real changes aren't all that significant.

    It's certainly not too late for Apple. Their hype machine is too good, and they will probably soon convince all but the most diehard skeptics that all is well in the iPhone universe.

    They might even convince my wife and that skeptical hair stylist.

    GIVING UP YOUR LANDLINE

    I like to think that my son, Grayson, is way ahead of the curve, but he was just following a trend when he opted not to get a landline telephone. While he shares an apartment with someone in Spain who does have a regular phone, he mostly relies on his wireless handset.

    Of course, the major telecommunications companies in the U.S. can tell you the very same thing, as their rosters of traditional telephone customers continue to drop. A recent survey indicated that some 25% of U.S. residents have ditched their landlines, but you can see the symptoms all around the landscape. Consider, for example, how hard it is to find a phone booth.

    What, pray tell, would Superman do in 2010?

    For some, cutting the cord is a matter of simplicity. Most people have cell phones anyway, and since the standard calling package includes unlimited calls, at least in the U.S., it can usually be fairly affordable so long as you're not too talkative. There are also unlimited voice packages, but you have to buy several for large families and it all begins to add up.

    When your wireless phone bill gets too high, there's always VOIP, which is simply a method of routing phone calls via your broadband Internet connection. That's how I keep the family and business phone bill down. The service we use, VOIPo (founded by some of the same people behind the HostGator Web hosting service), offers unlimited calls in the U.S. and Canada for rates ranging from $8.25 to $15.00 a month, depending on whether you want to pay for a full year in advance. Their standard calling package includes the usual features, plus 60 minutes of free calling to over 30 destinations, including Australia and Moscow.

    When you opt to give your landline the heave ho, however, there can be major downsides. Most important is 911 service. It's not normally available for a cell phone, which means emergency services will have to make a good guess based on the handset's location within the range of a specific tower, or its built-in GPS capability. For VOIP, you need to register your location with your Internet telephone company. You always took for granted their ability of the police and fire departments to find you when you called for help. Now you have to consider the limitations and work within them.

    VOIP's other main shortcoming is that it stops working if you lose your broadband connection due perhaps to a connection problem, power outage, or the consequence of forgetting to pay your bill. Most VOIP providers will let you set a fallback number, such as your cell phone, in case your telephone service adapter is not available to their network when you receive a call.

    Some people simply keep a basic landline phone package active strictly for emergency calls and faxing. VOIP doesn't do so well with the latter, although some offer special email-based services as a substitute. This isn't to say faxing isn't possible. That depends on your service, their network setup and, of course, the device you use for faxing.

    The biggest limitation of a cell phone is that, as yet, it's still too expensive when you need to go beyond the basic bucket of minutes. Roaming charges, which apply when you leave their service area, or your home country, can be horrendous. For there to be a true global wireless telephone system, the various providers will have to get together to work out an affordable network sharing system so you're not tethered to a specific country if you travel a lot.

    AT&T's various international packages are pathetic. Their supposed discount plan for regular family accounts offers rates ranging from 99 cents to $4.99 per minute. They won't even unlock an iPhone when your contract expires, after they've earned their full subsidized fee. Yes, you can jailbreak your iPhone, but that entails security risks, and you still have to pay the exorbitant fees exacted by your chosen wireless carrier.

    But even if the availability of the iPhone expands to other companies in the U.S., don't expect much relief. Verizon Wireless offers rates that may be half as much as AT&T in some countries, but that's still excessive in the scheme of things.

    But that, too, will ultimately shake out, if more and more customers demand affordable global plans. The Star Trek communicator that debuted in the 1960s as a science fiction concept may ultimately become a reality at a sensible price.

    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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    3 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #554”

    1. Lawrence Rhodes says:

      Giving up your landline has a nostalgia aspect to it, too: it restores the old intelligibility-eliminating background noise you used to get on long-distance calls, so you can now have it on every call. Landline sound has improved to the point that calls to other hemispheres sound like they're from the next room, while my cellphone experience has been akin to standing in a shower on a subway. Personally, I prefer a landline.

      Reply To This Comment

      Gene Steinberg replied on July 12th, 2010 at 3:50 PM:

      @Lawrence Rhodes, My feeling is that they mobile phone carriers are heavily compressing the audio signal, which is why it's usually subpar. You want the convenience of a wireless handset, that's the price you pay. It should be otherwise, and maybe it will be some day, but right now I expect most customers are delighted just to have a connection — period.

      Peace,
      Gene

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