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  • Newsletter Issue #629

    December 19th, 2011


    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.


    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 e-books and play games on those things, at least when you’re not using Twitter and Face-book.

    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.


    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 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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