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  • Newsletter Issue #634

    January 23rd, 2012

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    One of the most important apps in Apple’s arsenal is iTunes. From its humble beginnings as a music playing and song management app, it has become a significant portal for Apple’s online content from music, to movies, to books, not to mention iOS apps. At the same time, packing in all those features makes it seem bloated to some, and it’s may offer just too many options with which to easily configure your digital hub experience.

    What’s more, Apple’s attempts to put your stuff in the cloud have had uncertain results from the standpoint of smoothness and elegance. So on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured author and commentator Kirk McElhearn, who is now Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” to give you some hard-won tips about using iTunes, and he also outlined some of the problems reported with iTunes Match and iCloud.

    Next on tap was commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, from Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider, discussing the Consumer Electronics Show, along with the issues involving the various hardware and software platforms from the likes of Intel, AMD, ARM, Apple, and Google.

    We were also joined by Rob Pegoraro, a tech writer for USAToday.com, who talked about last week’s introduction of Apple’s iBooks 2, its impact to education, and the ongoing controversy over the now-shelved Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

    When it comes to SOPA, although Congress has listened, at least to the extent of shelving the bills for further study, the media companies who have pushed heavily for passage of this legislation are going to continue to demand solutions to the problem of online piracy. I agree that a solution is necessary, although it doesn’t seem that any new laws were required to allow the authorities to go after Megaupload.com, who is alleged to have committed such acts.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris welcome back the inimitable Jim Moseley, Editor/Publisher of “Saucer Smear,” an irreverent look at the entire UFO scene. Jim will come onboard to present not only his solution to the Roswell UFO crash, but answers to many questions from our loyal listeners. This is one episode you won’t want to miss!

    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.

    THE APPLE INTEGRATED TV AND THE BANDWIDTH LAND MINE

    Just this week, AT&T revised their wireless data plans for smartphone users. Although the entry-level price is higher, you also get more bandwidth for your money. Well, that is unless you are still using the grandfathered unlimited plan, as I am, and rest assured I have no intention to change.

    At the same time, you have to wonder whether the bandwidth crumbs the wireless carriers are throwing at us are sufficient to accommodate your needs. Can you get by with a couple of gigabytes per month if you download a fair amount of video content? What about the simple act of pushing stuff to and from your iCloud account, where you have 5GB of free storage?

    I suppose you’d have to set your Mac or PC to do the heavy lifting there. Of course, I might be a little overly concerned about such matters, since, two-thirds into the month of January, my iPhone’s bandwidth consumption over AT&T’s network is a tad over 500MB. On the other hand, I haven’t actually been viewing many videos, and when I do, I tend to be in the range of my Wi-Fi network, so I’m actually using my broadband provider’s bandwidth. But that opens up yet another potential can of worms.

    Depending on where you live, your ISP might offer an “unlimited” bandwidth plan, only there’s probably some fine print in the Terms of Service that addresses the few percentage of customers who might abuse the privilege. But, as a result of Apple TV, Netflix, and other providers of high definition streaming content, ISPs have begun to take serious note of the problem.

    My broadband account with the local ISP, Cox Communications, presently has a 400GB cap. They even offer an online Data Usage Counter, so you can keep tabs of your conspicuous consumption.  When you check the numbers, you will either feel comforted or frightened to death.

    In my case, I’ve rented two high definition movies from iTunes so far this month, streamed via my Apple TV. I also have an offline backup account with CrashPlan, where gigabytes of stuff are regularly sent for storage in case something happens that destroys my data. At $12 for a family plan, it’s worth every penny.

    All of this adds up. Two thirds into the month, I’ve used over 40GB, which still leaves plenty of room for the remainder of the month. I’d feel less comforted if I was still a Netflix customer, and consumed a fair amount of movies and TV shows via my online connection. Indeed, Netflix customers probably use more bandwidth than that sent by any other service, despite the company’s recent business problems, where loads of customers quit in disgust because of price increases and questionable corporate decisions.

    As you can see, I’m not necessarily the worst abuser of the system, and it can only get worse. Imagine, for example, if Apple offered an iTunes-based subscription service to coincide with the introduction of an iTV or similar TV set. Even a spruced up Apple TV set top box would create the climate for an immense increase in bandwidth use.

    Consider the typical TV watcher. Think about spending six or eight hours every single day watching high definition programming that’s being streamed via your ISP direct to your set. I’m not a high-level user, and I’ll be hitting 60GB of that 400GB allotment by the end of the month. Cox is not alone in setting bandwidth caps. Some Comcast users tell me they’re limited to 200GB.

    But what happens if I hit the limits?

    Cox promises to be proactive about the situation, saying they will get in touch with a customer to let them know about the problem, and offer possible solutions, such upgrading to a higher-tier broadband plan. Only I’m already using their best consumer plan. Their Terms of Service also states: “Cox strives to work with customers proactively before taking action to suspend service. However, in rare cases of extremely high usage, Cox will suspend the customer’s service until they call Cox. In even rarer cases, Cox will terminate a customer’s service if they do not decrease their usage after consultation with Cox.”

    So, in the end, if I don’t become a good citizen and cut down on bandwidth usage, they could suspend or terminate my account. That’s not a pretty prospect.

    Worse, it’s not as if Cox is terribly forthcoming about that bandwidth limit. If you examine their promotional literature, you’ll see they offer 20GB of total online storage, including a cloud-based backup system. The existence of that 400GB data cap is buried in the fine print until, of course, you get the account and discover the presence of the Data Usage Counter in the Web control panel.

    Now I am not going to necessarily attack Cox’s reasons for setting a maximum bandwidth level for their customers. It costs money to set up and maintain server farms to manage traffic, and bandwidth is not endless. There have to be limits. The question is how soon a cloud-based TV delivery system will challenge those limits.

    Besides, it’s not as if the cable systems have a motive to be generous with customers who aren’t using their TV services. Even if the bandwidth limits were raised, the prices would go up, and you’d be put in the position of paying the piper or choosing a cheaper way to receive TV programming. And, that, of course, would be their own cable TV services.

    I don’t pretend to know whether Apple is really going to get into the TV game, and whether they will want to be your main programming provider. But any cloud-based service is going to confront a potential land mine established by your ISP. I suppose Apple could make deals with the ISPs, offering them a piece of the pie if they lift the bandwidth caps, but time will tell how the bandwidth barrier is addressed.

    ARE YOU A MEMBER OF THE VINYL GENERATION?

    Once given up for dead, in recent years more and more LP records have been manufactured. As CD sales tank, greater numbers of music fans are returning to vinyl. Is that a trend, or just a bunch of aging baby boomers trying to regain their youth? But it’s also true that many younger folks are also embracing vinyl. What’s the attraction?

    Now when CDs first came out, promising “perfect sound forever,” audio experts protested. Maybe CDs would last an indefinite amount of time without audible wear and tear. Instead of ticks and pops and other symptoms of vinyl degradation, the music was heard against of wall of virtual silence except, perhaps, for hiss when analog tapes were used for mastering. But the audio quality was surely not perfect. Some talked of the “digital haze” or the overly harsh flavor to the music. How could that possibly be perfect?

    In those days, my wife was working to break into the music business as a singer, and I had frequent contact with studio and mastering engineers. On a few occasions, I met up with a veteran LP mastering guru who showed to me the serious alterations or equalization he had to apply to the recording to make it possible to play a record without skipping on a regular record changer or turntable. Indeed, the famous Bob Ludwig, one of the best engineers in the business, once told me he kept a cheap record player in his studio to make sure that the LPs he mastered would play properly.

    The problems started when those altered master recordings were used to author CDs. Suddenly the excesses were clear and present and made the resulting discs sound perfectly awful. I recall listening to one of the first CDs during a technology demonstration, a Billy Joel album, and it was downright unlistenable. At the same time, audiophiles proudly extolled the virtues of the warm natural character of vinyl. Even when the ticks and pops weren’t prominent, the soft sheen of the background noise present on any analog recording made them seem pleasing, comforting, even when the source material was classic rock.

    Over the years, recording engineers have learned how to do proper digital mastering. At the same time, some music producers will mix analog and digital source material in order to create the desired impact to an artist’s performance. Rock musicians will even connect tube-based amplifiers to their guitars to take advantage of the fashion in which they process the signal, but music editing apps promise to mimic the effect. It’s all done to realize a particular artistic goal.

    Indeed, when you attend a pop music concert, sound engineers will install elaborate networks of mixers and audio processing gear between you and the artist. A live performance may be so heavily processed you may not know where the live and where the recorded content begins and ends. But you’re there for the performance, and the nuts and bolts may only appeal to musicians and engineers. The rest of us just sit back and enjoy.

    It’s also true that a fair amount of popular music these days is so heavily processed that you may find it almost impossible to get the sense that you are listening to live music anymore. And wasn’t the original goal of high fidelity and later stereo to reproduce the sound of live music in your home?

    Into the breach, the existence of vinyl may be curiously comforting for lots of people. The listening experience is far more interactive and involving. Rather than tap a Play button on your digital gadget, you gently remove the LP from a paper or plastic sleeve, apply some sort of cleaning chemical to keep it pristine, and then carefully place it atop the turntable spindle. You then slowly place the needle on the groove, and sit back for playback to commence.

    Sure, the LP will begin to evince audible wear and tear after just a few playings, but you can always make a digital backup to preserve the pristine sound of the new LP. Then again, if you’re making a digital copy, doesn’t that defeat the purpose of choosing analog in the first place, or is digital still the perfect duplicate, as it’s intended to be?

    In the name of the listening experience, it probably doesn’t matter. Nothing is perfect, and if an LP, reproduced on a high quality playback system that includes tube-based electronics, actually sounds more pleasing to you, does it really matter if it’s technically a highly imperfect system?

    Now to put it all in perspective, some 2.8 million vinyl albums were sold in 2010, which is well under 1% of the total recorded music market. Number one, by the way, was The Beatles “Abbey Road” album from 1969.

    The cost of playback gear can be high, ranging from a few hundred dollars for a decent turntable, to tens of thousands of dollars for the complete audio system. As I consider the price of admission, I remember my first record player, so many years ago, which cost my parents all of $29. And, no, I’m not really considering the possibility of buying a new vinyl playback system, but it sure sounds like fun.

    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 #634”

    1. dfs says:

      The public is ever-hungrier for more and more bandwidth and at any given time an ISP service is limited in the amount of bandwidth it can deliver. Probably even the most conscientious ISP is always in the position of playing catch-up, struggling to expand its infrastructure to match that increasing demand. And at least in this country the speed, quality, and amount of available bandwidth is not regarded as a social problem or a matter of public policy, so that these struggling ISPs find that they are thrown back on their own resources in this effort: unlike France, S. Korea, etc., they aren’t going to get help from any level of government (this might actually be a good thing, for with governmental subsidy might come governmental interference with content, something we’ve just heard so much about). So I understand see the necessity of capping. But I can think of two possible recourses they have. First, has any ISP ever gone to corporations like Apple and Netflix and said, in effect, “Look, it’s what you guys are doing that are putting us in this position. The success of your enterprises presupposes the availability of a certain amount of bandwidth that at the moment we can’t deliver. If you want to see your enterprises do well, you might consider it as in your own best interest to help us out in this effort. It would be a whole lot healthier all around for us all to regard ourselves as partners than as antagonists.” If a consortium of ISPs were to approach a consortium of content-providers in this way, the results might be interesting. In the second place, as the amount of available bandwidth does increase, it would be nice if the limit of capping would be raised accordingly. I’ve not heard of this happening? Has anyone?

      By the way, Gene, do you remember Robert Crumb’s band, the Cheap Suit Serenaders? In the mid-1960’s they were releasing 78rpm. records made out of shellac and requesting that their purchasers use cactus needles to play them. I doubt they sold very many copies!

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