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  • Newsletter Issue #629

    December 19th, 2011

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    This year marked the tenth anniversary of the iPod. In thinking back to its humble beginnings, I had to think that I didn't pay too much attention to it at the time. Sure, it seemed a mighty fine gadget, but after having tested a few digital music players in those days, I wasn't enamored with the category, in large part because those music players were barely usable. They had obtuse interfaces, and were dreadfully slow.

    Well, I got an original iPod for review, and it was a revelation, with a slick interface and super-fast downloading from my Mac courtesy of FireWire. Later, Apple went USB, the better to get support from Windows users. Apple even ported iTunes to Windows to complete the picture. Indeed, it didn't take long for sales of iPods Windows users began to exceed those to Mac users and that, along with the debut of the Apple Store, helped take the company in a very new direction.

    If the iPod hadn't succeeded then, would Apple have built an iPhone or an iPod? An interesting question, because you have to wonder what might have happened had this unlikely confluence of events never occurred.

    So on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVEMacworld Editorial Director Jason Snell gave a brief  account of the history of the iPod. He also offered his experiences with an Amazon Kindle Fire tablet. I'll have more to say about the Fire and other examples of total mediocrity in the next article.

    Outspoken commentator Peter Cohen, of the "Angry Mac Bastards" radio show and Executive Editor for The Loop, covered the shaky situation at HP, as the company tries to seek out a new strategy, and why Microsoft removed the head of the Windows Phone division. Hint: It was partly a case of loose lips, but it's also true that smartphones with Microsoft's mobile OS seem to be going nowhere, and it's not at all certain if the new head of the division will fare any better.

    For a last minute look at the best tech gear for 2011, we called upon Steve "Mr. Gadget" Kruschen.

    On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Tim "Mr. UFO" Beckley, who presents his usual collection of the amazing paranormal events he's researched. You'll also learn about unusual reports of strange events near the burial place of Charles Fort in New York State with Claudia Cunningham.

    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 huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show, along with a redesigned storefront.

    HOW MUCH MEDIOCRITY ARE YOU WILLING TO TOLERATE?

    Certainly no consumer electronics product is necessarily perfect, but you have to hope you can get these gadgets to perform their basic tasks without having force you to jump through hoops, or navigate difficult-to-configure settings. With a TV set, things aren't so bad. Turn it on, and press a button on the remote to change a channel. But please don't get me started about doing picture settings and other setup routines.

    When it comes to the personal computing world, it took a while before the easier-to-use methods became acceptable. When Apple struggled to spread the word about the Mac in the 1980s, Microsoft was still making boatloads of money licensing DOS to PC makers. Oh, yes, they were also working on their graphical OS, dubbed Windows.

    It's generally agreed that Windows 95 was perhaps the first reasonably useful version. As Apple's executives continued to make foolish decisions that nearly caused the company to collapse, Microsoft made Windows good enough to actually allow you to be reasonably productive with it.

    Sixteen years later, Windows is undeniably a far better OS. Some even suggest there's not that much difference between the way things work on a Windows PC or a Mac, other than some obvious visual and usability variations. That's the fiction that Consumer Reports continues to spread, that you should buy a new computer on specs alone, and forget about ease of use. Certainly the fact that sales of Macs are growing faster than sales of most PC makers shows that customers have other ideas.

    But this brings to mind the Apple Way, compared to the way much of the rest of the industry treats the issues of balancing the need to add new features to serve the needs of customers and trump the competition, and making those features easy to use.

    I remember writing books and articles cataloging the steps required to perform a certain operation on a Mac and a PC. In almost every case, the PC required many more steps, sometimes to the extent of baffling regular people. Mobile phones in large part mimicked the Windows look in such respects, even to the extent of adding an hour glass icon to show that the thing was processing a request.

    Although there are more Android OS smartphones than iPhones in the wild these days, largely because you are comparing one company with few models to a number of companies with so many models it's hard to sort them out, it's generally agreed the iPhone is easier to use. Yes, perhaps Android has more so-called "power user" features, but are the needs of consumers and businesses really being served with complexity?

    One issue that Google continues to confront on the Android OS is the fluidity of the touch interface. On an iPhone, you experience near instant gratification when you tap, whereas the response and the special effects from a tap on an Android smartphone may be ragged. Perhaps you get used to just waiting a little bit, I suppose, particularly if you don't compare the Google and Apple products side by side.

    Besides, aren't computing devices supposed to be complicated and temperamental? Aren't they supposed to crash every now and then? That's a given on a PC, and I won't say a Mac is necessary perfect. So you expect that your smartphone, which incorporates a number of the functions of a personal computer, should be just as bad. It doesn't help, of course, when you're engaged in an important phone conversation when the thing freezes. But isn't the phone component just an afterthought anyway? You're supposed to read ebooks and play games on those things, at least when you're not using Twitter and Facebook.

    At least when you get into your car, you do expect the engine to fire up when you turn the ignition (or press the ignition button). Then again, sometimes those engines are pretty temperamental too, although the electronic gizmos that manage them these days have made things a whole lot more reliable. And if they fail, the service person simply connects the system to a computerized diagnostic console to see just what's gone wrong.

    But the eccentricities of the computer world have infected autos too, what with the proliferation of navigation and voice recognition systems even on low-cost compacts. At the same time, you also run into problems with usability and flaky performance. Ford has gotten dinged big time by customers because the onboard electronics, using technology licensed from Microsoft by the way, are unreliable and unresponsive. The touch screens, for example, don't always react reliably to a tap. Sound familiar?

    The highly-touted Amazon Kindle Fire tablet, which uses a really old version of Android never developed for tablets, represents the worst of such deficiencies, according to a number of the reviews of the product. Customers are complaining about the bugs, with Amazon promising to deliver an update. Well, at least they can count on an update. Users of other Android-based gear have to roll the dice in hopes that the manufacturer -- or carrier -- will deign to provide critical OS updates to them.

    At least the Kindle Fire is cheap. If you want something that mostly works, and are willing to put up with the glitches, and you can live with a reduced feature set, I suppose the Fire is decent enough. Of course, the same can be said for those $300 PCs. They work, they get you online, and if you don't raise your expectations, or expect great longevity, they will probably do just fine for many consumers.

    But when it comes to Android smartphones and tablets, for the most part, they usually aren't any cheaper than an iPhone, and it's debatable whether they offer equal or better value. But if you don't raise your expectations, and buy strictly on specs, maybe you'll learn to tolerate the deficiencies.

    That's how Microsoft got where it is today, although they are finding it increasingly hard to find new customers to accept mediocrity when something better is available.

    MAKING A BAD THING INTO A GOOD THING

    Although a personal computer generally carries a one year warranty, unless you buy an extended service plan, standalone hard drives generally carry coverage for three to five years. That has been a given, and it helps inspire confidence that the weakest link in any computer will be replaced should it go bad. Of course you still need a backup, because the hard drive manufacturer isn't going to promise to recover your stuff from a defective mechanism.

    Now I remember when a 5MB hard drive cost upwards of ten thousand dollars, and they were quite large. One of the first Macs I brought into my home had a 100MB drive that cost $1,200. That seemed a positive huge amount, then, but as the 1TB drive on my iMac fills rapidly, I wonder if I should consider 2TB next time.

    Today, a hard drive is dirt cheap, as capacities soar. You can get an internal 3TB drive, a Seagate Barracuda XT, for $279.99 at Best Buy, and loads of expansive drives for as little as $100. But the mechanical drive's days are numbered, as more and more computing devices feature flash memory. Apple's hot-selling MacBook Air only ships with solid state drives, which are far more costly, particularly as capacities expand, but give it time. Theres already talk of newer technologies, and even a rumor that Apple is planning to acquire an Israel-based development company to get a leg up on the latest and greatest flash memory achievements.

    But it will probably take a few years before flash becomes near as affordable as a traditional drive.

    Now faced with the need to continue to develop ways to build bigger and cheaper hard drives, the industry has decided to short-change the customer. According to a report in Computerworld, also carried in the magazine's sister publication, Macworld, both Seagate and Western Digital have devised an ill-thought scheme to reduce the warranties of some of their most popular models from three and five years to one or two years.

    The spin put on the change by a Seagate spokesperson has it that this decision will allow the warranties "to be more consistent with those commonly applied throughout the consumer electronics  and technology industries."

    Have your eyes glazed over yet?

    Well, consider this further tidbit of corporate double-talk: "By aligning to current industry standards, Seagate can continue to focus its investments on technology, innovation and unique product features that drive value for our customers."

    Tell me, Seagate: How do the customers get better value when the warranties on their hard drives, containing their precious data, are reduced?

    In shortening the warranties of some of their drives from three years to two, Western Digital said they are "continually evaluating the best mix of product service features that benefit our customer base as a whole."

    So in the bizarro world of the hard drive industry, giving customers less assurance of the longevity of their products is a good thing. Besides, if these companies truly need the money saved from warranty replacements to fund further development, doesn't that mean that the drives aren't as reliable as they should be? Or that maybe they are charging too little?

    Wouldn't you be willing to pay a tiny bit more to be assured that your drive will be replaced if it goes bad within a few years? Or maybe to help hard drive makers find ways to make their products more reliable?

    But in the world of corporate delusion, a bad thing is a good thing, if you can wrap your head around the fundamental illogic of this decision. I also think the media should have done a little more towards calling them out on this foolish maneuver, instead of just quoting the statements without serious comment.

    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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    5 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #629”

    1. [...] Continue Reading… Related Posts: Newsletter #482 Preview: Is Microsoft the Catch Up King? [...]

    2. Patrick Weigel says:

      Regarding your take on hard drive warranties, you're perfectly free to start your own company and provide an extended warranty to anyone who buys a Segate hard drive.

      I'm not trying to be snippy, I'm trying to provide a different method of analysis than your "company X should do Y because Y is better".

      If people really are willing to pay a tiny bit more, you'll soon have a successful company and you'll know you've provided a service to humanity. If you're worried about the difficulties of selling warranties to millions of hard drive users, then just sell one warranty to Segate. If you're against extended warranties because they're rip-offs, you don't have to worry about that because you are setting the price and you're a good person.

      Let me know if you want to proceed with this.

      Reply To This Comment

      Gene Steinberg replied on December 19th, 2011 at 11:17 AM:

      @Patrick Weigel, So the solution to a bad corporate maneuver is just to start your own extended warranty company?

      How to proceed? Well, there are such plans, but that doesn't let the hard drive makers off the hook.

      Peace,
      Gene

      Reply To This Comment

    3. Andrew says:

      Individual companies vary greatly in how they treat their customers, and in the quality of their products. This website generally gets Apple right, but tends to be more than a little anti-Microsoft. Case in point is the SYNC vehicle package that Microsoft provides to Ford, which you describe as having many customer complaints. It does, but FAR LESS than competing systems with similar functionality. In fact, SYNC, despite being a Microsoft product, was generally regarded as the best vehicle entertainment/navigation/communications system on the market when it was initially released, and even three years later remains the industry benchmark. My new Mercedes-Benz COMAND system, while very good, is far less intuitive than the SYNC system on the Ford Mustang I rented last month.

      Microsoft is very good at embedded systems, which is what SYNC is. Same with XBox, point-of-sale terminals, restaurant management platforms and all sorts of other things that they do extremely well. No harm in giving a little credit where credit is due. Don't believe me? Read any review in MotorTrend, Car and Driver, Automobile or Road and Track of a Ford or Lincoln with SYNC and even when they don't like the car, they LOVE the electronics. Its a terrific system.

      Windows 95 was "good enough", but Windows NT, while clunky, was far more robust than the classic Mac OS (or consumer Windows). Today, both Windows and OS X are excellent systems, though as in all things, get very different levels of support. If I needed a Windows PC (which I don't), I would buy it from the Microsoft Store's signature program, which is very Mac-like in that MS provides the software support directly and the PC arrives with a clean install and no crapware. Not quite as good as Apple supporting hardware and software, but far better than the PC industry norm.

      As for Consumer Reports, they and you both have it wrong. Specs only matter in comparing within the same platform, while OS is the single most important consideration to most people. I would argue that today the choice of Mac or PC should depend on your software library or application needs. Those who need a Windows-only or Mac-only application have no reason for platform envy today, while those who have a significant investment in one platform or the other would be foolish to switch platforms and have to re-purchase everything they already own.

      Reply To This Comment

      Gene Steinberg replied on December 21st, 2011 at 5:56 AM:

      @Andrew, Recent J.D. Powers surveys show that Ford customers are up in arms over the problems with SYNC. They do not love the slow touch response and other bugs, which is why Ford's rating in the new car surveys went way down. They also promised a fix. So where do you put the blame? Ford or Microsoft, from whom they licensed the technology?

      Peace,
      Gene

      Reply To This Comment

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