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  • Newsletter Issue #683

    December 31st, 2012

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    When it comes to our favorite fruit company, it was fitting to spend a little time covering Apple's perceived failures in 2012 this week, and I'll have a lot more to say on a certain notorious misfire in the next article.

    In any case, on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we explore 2012's wins and losses in the tech industry, with the emphasis on Apple Inc. Was, as some people suggest, Mapgate, involving the trials and tribulations of Maps for iOS 6, the biggest tech failure of the year? What about the buggy initial release of iTunes 11, and is Apple going to release a real smart TV set next year?

    Along to discuss these and other subjects are Peter Cohen, from the "Angry Mac Bastards" radio show and Executive Editor for The Loop, and tech journalist Kirk McElhearn, Macworld's "iTunes Guy."

    Now setting aside Mapgate for the moment, what about iTunes 11? Well, Kirk felt it was released prematurely, although a quick bug fix came out soon thereafter. But after touting the huge changes in the new iTunes release, Apple already postponed it a month, from October to November. Would it have made sense to postpone it yet again? Sure, Apple is being criticized for releasing unfinished software, but it's not as if Microsoft and Google don't do the very same things. There's always going to be a point where a company must decide to release now and fix later, but you have to hope what's left to be fixed won't crash your Mac or PC, or cause some sort of data corruption.

    But when people suggest releasing highly flawed software is something new for Apple under the Tim Cook regime, they only have to look at the history, even under Steve Jobs. There were certainly a couple of OS X releases over the years that could cause data corruption. Yes, the problems were fixed real fast, but you always wondered if Apple should have tried a little harder to get things right, or maybe they should have waited a little longer before getting that release to market.

    Special Sci-Fi Update! Last month, our second sci-fi novel, "Rockoids II: The Coming of the Protectors" was released. The novel continues the exciting adventures of the unique characters introduced in the first novel in the series, "Attack of the Rockoids." Rather than retread the same ground as some sequels do, the story moves forward in unique directions. My son, Grayson, and I had lots of fun writing the story, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we did. It's available in both print and Amazon Kindle editions. Why Amazon? Well, since Kindle software is available on various platforms, we only had to make one version to satisfy as many readers as possible.

    On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a year-end retrospective with long-term researcher Don Ecker, host of the Dark Matters radio show. During this episode we'll explore not just a Don's outspoken opinions about UFO and paranormal research, but his views about pop culture as well.

    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 MAPGATE REPORT: THE WORST TECH FAILURE OF 2012?

    The other day, I looked over some of the "worst of" compilations for the tech industry in 2012. Certainly the Facebook IPO got high billing. This is particularly true for investors who bought the stock at its original price of $38 per share; it was $25.91 as of the close of the trading session on December 28.

    But flawed IPOs are nothing new. I remember the IPO for Vonage, the Internet phone company, some years back, where the stock price quickly dropped big time. There were even suggestions over the years that Vonage was going out of business, but it's still here. If you have confidence in the future of Vonage Holdings, you'll find the $2.30 price, as of December 28, to be quite a bargain. Well, at least the company is making a profit.

    Certainly, very few complain about Apple's profits, although the stock price has been down in the dumps lately. But a key reason for that may just be Mapgate, perceived to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, tech industry misfire for 2012. The emotions are high, but it does appear that the facts are getting lost as so many look to the arrival of Google Maps for iOS as navigation salvation.

    There's little doubt that Apple's Maps has so far failed to realize its potential. The debut was extremely troubled. After Scott Forstall demonstrated the 3D view and the other wonderful features of the app at the June WWDC conference keynote, the actual product proved to be less than expected.

    One of the biggest problems was 3D rendering, where you saw indistinct or melted bridges and other landmarks. Even the Statue of Liberty didn't fare so well, but location navigation accuracy was perceived as even more troubled. Putting Columbia, SC, the state capital, in Latin America was but one notable example. Some people reported that turn-by-turn routing was in many cases extremely flawed, with people getting lost.

    In one telltale column, The New York Times tech columnist David Pogue said he arrived late for a public appearance because Maps put him in the wrong place. You wonder, in passing, why Pogue didn't simply recheck the route before throwing caution to the wind, particularly since he knew Maps was supposed to be extremely flawed. But that didn't fit in with the conventional wisdom that Apple was bad, Google was good. The media played it for all it was worth.

    When Google Maps for iOS appeared, the company touted 10 million downloads in the space of a few days, no doubt to fill all that pent-up demand. But remember that 100 million people upgraded to iOS 6 within a few days of its release.

    There was one questionable report suggesting that iOS downloads suddenly soared after Google Maps was launched, forgetting the huge sales of the iPhone 5 in China, which was the real reason for the increase. Once again, facts didn't get in the way of the perception that Google was right, and Apple was wrong.

    Over time, I have seen Apple Maps improve in many respects, though it's still too inclined to flag a left turn into a shopping mall as a U-turn. But it least it usually takes me to the right place with a reasonably swift route (you often get two or three from which to choose).

    In contrast, I've seen Google Maps miss far too often. One one occasion, it directed me two miles short of the location of a health food store. On two other occasions, Google Maps delivered roundabout routing to take me to a restaurant and a utility payment center. I also wonder why nobody (that I know of) in the media noticed what I saw the first time I tried the app's turn-by-turn navigation feature, which was a prompt claiming it was a beta, and I must accept the terms, conditions and limitations before continuing.

    All right, maybe it's no longer a beta, but why didn't anyone else discuss that warning among the vast hordes of journalists who downloaded the app on the very first day?

    Apple Maps also got a warning from government officials in Australia for allegedly routing people to a remote wilderness rather than the correct destination. Supposedly only one or two people were impacted by this egregious error, but that may have been too much. However, the data reportedly came from the Australian government, and it was corrected by Apple as soon as they were alerted to the problem.

    Seldom mentioned was the alert from a local police department in Australia that people shouldn't rely on Google Maps for destinations after it put them on a one-way street by mistake.

    I suppose Apple could have avoided some of the bad publicity by simply calling Maps a beta, and asking the public to help them fix the problems with their bug reports. Yes, Maps arrived in severely flawed shape, but claiming it was the worst tech failure of the year is a stretch.

    What about Windows 8 and the Surface tablet? Or does anyone even care about Microsoft anymore?

    WOULD I BUY AN APPLE SMART TV?

    The other day, one of our readers suggested that Apple's interface expertise would be a good reason to build a TV set. The theory here is that most TVs come with an app collection these days, with support for such streaming services as Hulu and Netflix, but the interfaces suck -- big time! This is an area where Apple can make one huge difference, although it's also true that most TV owners don't even bother with the smart apps included in those sets, at least according to one recent survey.

    Yes, Apple can make a difference, but the Apple TV is already here. You don't need to toss your set to buy one, so long as it's new enough to include an HDMI port. Indeed, except for the initial setup screen and ongoing changes you want to make when it comes to your set's picture and audio quality, you never need to visit that awful interface. That can't be enough to persuade you to spend maybe upwards of $1,000 on an Apple smart TV, rather than $99 for an Apple TV box.

    This doesn't mean Apple can't make a big difference in using a TV set. Most of you don't choose to visit your set's configuration menus. The setup experience may be sufficient never to want to see it again. But even a cheap model has loads of settings you can make to fine-tune picture quality, and, perhaps, to turn on built-in surround sound emulation and other features. Apple could really strike a balance between ease of use and setup flexibility here. It may even be possible to automatically tune the picture to your needs, such as live sports, movies, and games. Apple wouldn't use a default profile, but would maximize picture quality based on the condition of the hardware and room lighting. It would change when you turn the lights off, but keep the proper image balance.

    Now you may not think that's such a big deal, but consider that some use a calibration DVD to get the best picture from a set. Or hire someone certified by the Imaging Science Foundation to come to your home and use instruments to calibrate your set. But spending a few hundred dollars just to make what may be very subtle changes in image quality is probably not worth it for most of you, unless you have a very expensive set. You may prefer to attempt to calibrate it yourself, or just not bother.

    Apple could make a huge difference there, and no doubt they'd use the best flat panels and other advanced components to make the Apple smart TV set user experience something real special. But since even the cheapest sets usually produce an acceptable picture these days, Apple might want to also concentrate on offering better calibre audio. Why spend a few hundred dollars, or even thousands, on a home theater system when your set can deliver high-grade audio, and still keep an affordable price?

    But it's also true that an Apple TV box on steroids would deliver a great user experience without forcing you to invest in a new set. I mean, I have a low-end 50-inch Panasonic plasma, acquired in 2008. Yes, I suppose newer sets deliver a better picture, but not that much better. You'd barely notice unless you put them side by side. So, assuming I have the proper credit limit available, why would I want to invest another thousand or so on an Apple replacement?

    A better Apple TV box? Sure, why not? Perhaps, as I suggested in another column, Apple could offer a digital hub version, which would serve as a control center for all your TV's accessories, from Blu-ray players to game consoles. The integration of these peripherals is poorly executed for the most part on existing sets. But there are other ways to smooth the input switching process. Except for occasional glitches, my Logitech Harmony universal remote generally gets the job done. It runs the TV, Blu-ray, Apple TV and audio system. Tap the screen and it switches to another input, turns the proper equipment on and off and, in 30 seconds or so (these delays are required to do the job right), I'm good to go.

    Yes, there are things Apple could do much better, but, assuming I will be able to afford the price of admission, it would still make a new TV set -- however tempting -- a hard sell for me.

    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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