Predictably, we focused once again on the possibilities of Mac OS X Lion and the reinvigorated MacBook Air this week. But there was another important subject on the table.
First things first. On Saturday night's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we concentrated on the feedback about the forthcoming major revision to the Mac OS, 10.7, code-named Lion, along with the recent MacBook Air upgrade that's taken the PC industry by storm.
On board to talk about these two subjects were author and commentator Kirk McElhearn, who owns an original MacBook Air, and Avram Piltch, the Online Editorial Director from Laptop magazine, who has thoroughly tested both the 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch versions, and offered a complete analysis of the new portables from Apple.
Now here's the most important discussion of all: You also heard about a new solution to the texting phenomenon and distracted driving known as StartTalking, from Christopher Hassett, CEO of AdelaVoice Corporation. This new product, which starts life as a free Android OS app — it'll come to the iPhone early next year — lets you text and perform other functions on a smartphone by voice. This doesn't mean that an heated verbal conversation in a motor vehicle, such as an argument with a passenger, won't distract you from the task at hand. But entering text on a mobile phone while driving is so dangerous, you wonder why kids are so addicted to the process.
No wonder I sometimes wish for the good days. But there have always been ways to divert you from the task at hand, which is driving safely from here to there.
This week on our other show, The Paracast, co-host Greg Bishop presented fringe culture chronicler (or certified "crackpot historian") Adam Gorightly, who has been involved in writing and researching the paranormal since the 1980s.
Coming November 7: Co-host Christopher O’Brien presents veteran UFO researcher Ronald S. Regehr, MUFON's Deputy Director of Research, who will recount over 50 years of on-site research into some of the major sightings of the 20th and 21st centuries.
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.
It's hard to realize that, at one time, Apple and Microsoft, in the person of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, were close friends. The very first versions of Word and Excel appeared on the Mac platform before Microsoft moved the lion's share of development resources to Windows, in effect double-crossing Apple.
In the 1990s, when Apple was really down in the dumps business wise, Jobs crafted a deal with Gates in which Microsoft would continue to build Office for the Mac and, in turn, invested to the tune of $150 million. Now that money didn't save Apple, but it certainly helped at a time when the financial situation was difficult.
In an unexpected turn of events, Apple beat Microsoft down with the iPod, the iPhone and, it appears, the iPad. Microsoft does well with its traditional office, PC operating system and server products, but consumer offerings haven't fared well. That is, except perhaps for the Xbox gaming console.
Despite still pushing Silverlight as a viable alternative to Flash for Web-based multimedia content, it does appear that the stars are actually aligned between Apple and Microsoft when it comes to the end game. You see, both are now dedicated to advancing HTML5 as a standard for both traditional PCs and mobile devices.
The first glimmer of that support came in the initial betas of Microsoft Internet Explorer 9. With IE's market share dipping below 60% worldwide, it was refreshing to see Microsoft make a genuine effort once again to create a speedy, standards compliant browser. The prerelease versions have, in fact, done so well in competitive benchmarks against the best and brightest on the Window platform that you wonder if Microsoft ought to consider returning it to the Mac. It's that good.
It's also true that the newly-minted Office 2011 for the Mac has garnered surprisingly favorable reviews from even those usually skeptical of Microsoft's products, such as my friend, author and commentator Daniel Eran Dilger.
My own experience with Office 2011 indicates that it is surely more Mac-like than usual, although there are some all-too-typical Microsoft interface quirks and a few ragged edges. The not very original ribbon is too large and busy, but at least Word now remembers the sizes of document windows between application launches.
When it comes to Outlook, I really haven't been able to run it for more than a few hours before becoming sick and tired of its quirks and inconsistent performance. But this isn't new for Microsoft. No doubt it'll take a service pack or two to set things right. It is a credible start with loads of promise.
The quality of the new Office clearly demonstrates that Microsoft has expended a fair amount of effort to build a credible Mac application suite. There's even a report that support for the Zune music player, which, surprisingly enough, remains in production, will come to the Mac in the near future.
Of course both Apple and its perennial frenemy, Microsoft, have the same large competitor in their targets, and that's Google. That explains why Microsoft seems more warm and fuzzy about Apple these days. This is not to say that they won't continue to compete. Consider that recent meeting between Microsoft and Adobe, where they discussed Apple; a meeting that fueled speculation that the two companies were talking about merger possibilities.
Consider, also, the occasional irrational rants from CEO Steve Ballmer about Apple, or the admission from Melinda Gates, Bill's wife, that Apple gear is prohibited in their household. But you have to believe Bill Gates still has his secret Mac collection in a closet or home office.
Regardless, it's clear that Microsoft has, at the very least, opted to take a more realistic approach to dealing with Apple. They have little choice, since Apple has higher gross sales and a bigger market cap, and thus deserves total respect. What's more, a healthy number of Mac users continue to buy Microsoft's products, particularly Office for the Mac. With the continued rapid growth of the Mac platform, there's the potential for even more sales.
Indeed, when you buy a new Mac from Apple's online store and click the Select button to customize your order, there's a checkbox for the latest version of Office, one of a limited number of third-party products offered. The other, as of the time this newsletter is being written, is a small selection of HP printers, though the selections do change periodically.
When Office 2011 for the Mac shipped, I even got a mailing from Apple offering the updated suite, and touting its new features, along with the greater compatibility with the Windows version. Certainly such a promotion is intended to provide good returns for both Apple and Microsoft.
I also wonder, now that Windows Phone 7 is hitting the market, whether Microsoft might consider offering a special Mac sync application for their new smartphone. It makes plenty of sense, particularly since Microsoft has to make a huge uphill climb if they expect to gain a decent share of the smartphone market. More expansive support for the new mobile OS is bound to help.
When Steve Jobs made a surprise appearance at the recent quarterly financial conference with industry analysts, he dominated the conversation with several pointed comments. His sharp criticism of the fragmented nature of the Android OS app market predictably got a quick response from both a developer and Google, though the latter was confined to an inscrutable Twitter posting.
Now what Jobs has to say makes perfect sense. There are literally dozens of different Android hardware configurations that have to be supported by app developers, not to mention the fact that different handsets have different versions of the OS, and they are usually modified in one fashion or another to provide exclusive branding for a manufacturer and/or carrier. I can't imagine the task is simple in any respect.
So I wasn't surprised when one of my guests for this week's tech show, Christopher Hassett, CEO of AdelaVoice Corporation, confirmed his own company's experience building StartTalking for Android. Indeed, his personal Android smartphone repository includes nine different models, and I expect his programming team had to buy many more to properly test the app. And, yes, there will be an iOS version next year, the result of a delay that Hassett explains in more detail in that radio interview.
Fragmented? Yes. How could it be otherwise?
At the same time, tech pundits who support Android continue to tout its open source nature, and the wide variety of handsets and carriers that provide gear for different tastes and budgets. At the same time, the variation in themes — or skins — that are being offered in the various models also creates a serious branding problem. There is no single look and feel that applies to all or most of these products that speaks Android. More to the point, carriers have to work harder to move product.
Take Verizon Wireless, which has been advertising two-for-one deals. Buy any smartphone, get the second at no charge. Of course, you have to sign up for two year service contracts on both. In the end, however, Verizon's growth this past quarter was subdued, in contrast with the U.S.A.'s number two carrier, AT&T, which reported decent growth and continued to move loads of iPhones.
So Android products may excel in numbers in this country, but no single product comes close to the iPhone. More to the point, it seems almost certain now that there will be a Verizon version, quite likely early in 2011. So potential customers who have been avoiding iPhones, because they didn't want to deal with AT&T's reputed network problems in certain cities, will have a viable alternative.
Right now you wonder how many potential customers buy Android mostly because of Verizon's superior network, or the cheap hardware. Would they choose an iPhone if it was offered?
In the end, do customers benefit because of the fragmented nature of the Android OS? Does Apple's walled garden work against the interests of customers, or does it provide a superior, dependable experience that benefits most everyone except the power user?
Once there's a Verizon version of the iPhone, Android's main advantage in this country will vanish. Let's see how the sales picture looks after the first year. The key issue, however, is the extent of the iPhone's year-over-year growth. If Apple can continue to report 50-100% increases over the next few years, it won't matter one bit if there are far more Android OS devices around.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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