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  • Newsletter Issue #610

    August 8th, 2011

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    So tell me, do you think the ongoing patent disputes are really just part of a plot by the likes of Apple and Microsoft to compete with that allegedly open mobile platform, Google’s Android OS? Certainly that’s formed the basis of ongoing online chatter between Google and Microsoft.

    It all arose out of the recent purchase of some 6,000 patents from a bankrupt telecom, Nortel, by a consortium consisting of Apple, Microsoft, Research in Motion and other companies. But you have to wonder about the curious revelation from Microsoft that Google was invited to join the party, but refused.

    That’s definitely a foolish move in retrospect, and no amount of spin control on Google’s part can explain why they declined to participate. If they are forced to pay royalties to patent holders as a result — or the licensees to Android face that prospect — it may indeed be all their fault. Maybe they need to fire a few of the offending employees over there; it’s not as if replacements aren’t around with so many people out of work.

    But I’ll have more to say about the patent situation later on in this issue.

    In any case, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, from Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider, discussed Apple’s mobile platform as compared with Google’s Android OS.

    Security reporter Paul Wagenseil, of Security News Daily, detailed the known security issues for personal computers, mobile gadgets, your car, and even power plants.

    Macworld lab director Jim Galbraith brought you up to date on the test results of Apple’s refreshed MacBook Air and Mac mini, and commentator Ted Landau addressed such issues as the alleged dumbing down of OS X Lion.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a return visit by UFO investigator Robert Hastings, author of “UFOs and Nukes: Extraordinary Encounters at Nuclear Weapons Sites,” which covers sightings of UFOs in and around nuclear weapons facilities around the world. We’ll also present listener questions about his research.

    Coming August 14: Gene and Chris have an enjoyable and freewheeling visit with scientist David Kaiser, a professor at MIT and author of “How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival.” Discover the strange world of quantum theory and other cutting edge scientific studies, and how they might relate to the paranormal.

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt — Now with New Design! 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.

    CAN YOU BELIEVE THOSE PRODUCT REVIEWS?

    The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” When you look at this oft-quoted statement, the meaning is clear, even though far too many people ignore the meaning.

    So let’s consider all those reviews of consumer products you read in such magazines as Consumer Reports, or publications dedicated to a specific product category, such as cars and personal computers. Are the reviewers fair, do they use reliable methodology in deciding what’s good and what’s bad?

    More important: Are those reviews tainted because of possible influence from manufacturers who want to see their stuff get high ratings? If a publication is receiving advertising from a company, thus depending on them for some of their income, how can they in turn criticize that company’s products and not suffer from the possible consequences?

    As most of you know, I have written reviews of tech gear for several publications over the years, and I like to think I’ve never considered how a company might react if I gave their stuff a poor review. I remember one instance where I criticized one of the first Apple PowerBooks, back in the 1990s, for having a poor quality display. My editor at the time even lowered the star rating, concluding that my review deserved a more unfavorable conclusion.

    But my experience with editors wasn’t always so pleasant. At one time, an editor at CNET, where I wrote a large number of features some years back, added several paragraphs criticizing some of the features of Apple’s early versions of Mac OS X. Unfortunately, the added material, presented under my byline, was largely incorrect. I wrote the editor and explained what was wrong and why, only to be dropped from that editor’s list of contributing writers within a few weeks. That sort of unprofessional conduct, by the way, has long led me to be skeptical of some of CNET’s published material.

    These days, I write reviews for my own site, and again I do not consider the possible consequences should a potential advertiser decide to take their business elsewhere as a result. But the publications for whom I’ve worked all claim to be incorruptible. They say they keep the editorial and advertising departments separate, and do not allow one to unduly influence the other.

    When it comes to Consumer Reports, their claim to fame is the fact that they buy the tested products at retail, anonymously, so those products can’t be tampered with and thus perform better than the ones available to regular customers. To stay above the fray, they do not even accept retail advertising. But in the end, that doesn’t make a CR review any more reliable than other publications? It doesn’t, for example, guarantee correct testing methods.

    I’ve gone chapter and verse about the faults in CR’s testing of PCs and mobile computers. There’s also that recent controversy over an unfavorable review of Honda’s 2012 Civic compact car. While that model has garnered very good ratings from CR over the years, the latest version was downgraded for a choppy ride, poorly weighted steering, long stopping distances on wet pavement and other issues.

    Inasmuch as the Civic, and Honda’s mid-sized vehicle, the Accord, together account for a hefty portion of their U.S. sales, they predictably struck back stating that they disagree with the review. Well, you have to expect that, but when you examine 2012 Civic reviews of all the major auto publications, you find they disagree with CR in significant areas. To them, the Civic, while having its flaws, does not suffer from a choppy ride, one that is particularly bumpy. This is the sort of value judgment that ought to be based on a fairly consistent set of criteria. So whom do you trust?

    Just the other day, I caught a PCWorld review of a Panasonic TC-P50ST30 50-inch plasma TV. The set was heavily criticized for sub-par picture quality, particularly for motion, color and contrast. A CNET review of the same model rates the picture quality as “excellent” in virtually all tested areas. And, surprisingly, CR rates the same model as a top performer, with excellent picture quality, in a recent survey of so-called Internet TVs; the Panasonic scored an 81. Other reviews of this model have also praised picture quality, so, other than PCWorld, we’re seeing a fairly consistent set of results, even if you ignore the CR rating.

    You have to wonder whether PCWorld actually tested the same model as the rest of the crowd? How can their conclusions vary so much from their peers? I suppose it’s possible they didn’t give the tested unit the standard 100 hours of “burn-in” before doing the tests. A plasma’s image quality will adjust somewhat over this initial period. Compare it to the break in period of a new car.

    Of course, if you examine PCWorld’s reviews of flat-panel TVs in recent years, you’ll see they tend to be far more critical of Panasonic products than their peers. In this group, LG and Samsung routinely get far better ratings for picture quality. Since the reviews are written by different writers, you can’t assume there’s necessarily a built-in prejudice against Panasonic as a TV maker.

    However, as a reader of these reviews, I have to tell you that I would be utterly confused as to which set to buy if I had a Panasonic in my sights. In all fairness, I did take a trip to the local Best Buy store, where I examined the set and found a perfectly decent picture overall. On the other hand, unless the store puts TVs in a setting that mimics a typical living room, somewhat darkened — and that happens with some electronics stores featuring high-end home theater departments — you aren’t going to get a fair test of picture quality. Besides, to stand out in the crowd, the sets are usually configured with a setting that makes the pictures much brighter than you’d tolerate in your own home.

    Of course, you should always decide for yourselves which products are best. But if the reviews are all over the place, how can you rely on them for guidance?

    At times like these, that oft-quoted statement from Senator Moynihan becomes even more important. But I wonder if any of those publications are really paying attention.

    GETTING WITH THE PATENT PROGRAM

    When the U.S. Congress gets back to work September, one area where the dissenting parties might agree is some measure of patent reform. The proposed new law would grant patents to the individual or company who files first, not the person who claims they invented it first. This may seem a logical step to take, and it’s the way it’s done in other countries, so the U.S. is coming late to the party.

    On the other hand, you wonder how this and other changes will impact the way patents are being protected by companies these days. So, for example, you have companies, often made up of little more than a legal firm, who buy up patents for the sole purpose of collecting royalties and filing lawsuits. These patent trolls don’t actually build products or offer services that exploit their patents.

    So you have a situation where companies that actually build things will be aggressive in buying up available patent portfolios not because they expect to use them in existing products, but to protect themselves in the future from potential lawsuits.

    This defensive posture may have been a key reason why Apple, Microsoft, RIM and other companies teamed up to bid on some 6,000 patents from Nortel, a bankrupt Canadian telecom company. It certainly didn’t make Google happy, and they’ve been very vocal in complaining about the state of affairs, where their individual bid proved too low to win that bundle.

    On the other hand, when a Microsoft attorney revealed that Google was invited to join the consortium and refused, you have to wonder what that company was really thinking. The complaints come across more as sour grapes for failing to make the right decision at the right time.

    What’s more, Google is making the curious charge that Apple and other companies are so busy defending intellectual property rights that they aren’t innovating. Peculiar indeed, since Apple is widely considered to be one of the most innovative tech companies on the planet.

    Certainly, if you examine the basis of the lawsuits Apple has filed, you’ll see they are claiming that other companies, such as HTC and Samsung, are stealing their patented designs in building iPhone and iPad knock-offs. This may sound like a repetition of the original Apple versus Microsoft lawsuits all those years ago. But that legal action was doomed from the beginning, because John Scully, then Apple’s CEO, was snookered into licensing Mac OS technology to Microsoft to begin with. So that’s where Windows started.

    In the current legal actions, Apple hasn’t licensed iOS technology to anyone. If these other companies are borrowing too much from the look and feel — and I will not pretend to judge the validity of those legal filings — then they deserve to face the consequences. If Google is a prime offender, because they licensed the Android OS to those companies, they ought to face the consequences too.

    But you have to wonder just how many variations on an OS theme these companies can actually devise? How many choices do they have in building consumer friendly touchscreen interfaces, and how easy is it to step on someone’s toes simply by adding features that appear to be only logical? Are patents sometimes just a little too broad to allow a company the freedom to put their own stamp on a design?

    The first-to-file provision in that new U.S. patent law isn’t going to mean that patents will now be granted in a more sensible fashion. But one other provision, known as “first window,” would give companies nine months to challenge a patent after it has been granted. This review system might help reduce all the legal skirmishes that arise over some of these patents.

    Or maybe not.

    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: Sharon Jarvis



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    3 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #610”

    1. […] Continue Reading… Please Link to Us!<a href="http://www.technightowl.com/2011/08/newsletter-issue-610-can-you-believe-those-product-reviews/&quot; >Newsletter Issue #610: Can You Believe Those Product Reviews?</a>Related Articles:Consumer Reports Continues Taking a Schizophrenic Approach to MacsYet Another Reviewing the ReviewersIs Consumer Reports Discovering the Mac?Apple Continues to Upset the High Price MythOf Generic Tablets and Choppy Rides […]

    2. Kaleberg says:

      First to file will just encourage even more half baked, overly broad patent filings. It’s simple game theory. In fact, you should be patenting your ideas for games even now. You never know whom you will be able to sue. We’re strangling on our patent system as it is, especially since they’ve allowed patents on ideas like business methods and software designs, rather than actual mechanisms.

      The Wright brothers kept the US out of aviation until their patent’s lapsed, thanks to their overly broad airplane patent which included the idea of controlling a flying vehicle by changing the shape of its wing surfaces. You’ll notice they didn’t patent wing warping or ailerons or even a rudder, but the entire idea. Needless to say, innovation moved to Europe where they didn’t honor the patent and the US had to play catch up.

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