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  • Newsletter Issue #686

    January 21st, 2013

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    A year of lemons? Well, perhaps for a friend and frequent guest on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, where commentator Kirk McElhearn, Macworld's "iTunes Guy," discussed lemons for 2012, a list of the products from Apple and other companies that caused him lots of grief. He also talked about the prospects for an Apple TV set.

    When I listened to Kirk's list, which included Macs and a scanner from Fujitsu, I was grateful that I seldom end up with defective gear of any sort. The last serious failure occurred in 2009, when a Panasonic plasma TV weeks out of warranty had a power supply failure. It took a few calls to Panasonic to persuade them to grant me an "exception," a much lower price for the repair, but it was still cheaper than buying an extended warranty. I should consider myself lucky. Good reliability ought to be a given with any electronic product. But it doesn't always happen that way.

    You'll also heard from tech journalist Rob Pegoraro, who writes a weekly column for USA Today," discussing the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, including some of the great and not-so-great product intros.

    This weekend, my wife called my attention to a TV interview featuring someone discussing the best gear from the CES, but when they began to show off a few of those dreadful convertible PC/tablet-style notebooks, I returned to other pursuits. The inability of PC makers to "get it" is but one reason why sales were down over the holiday quarter, despite the arrival of Windows 8. But it's not as if the public is clamoring for Windows 8.

    Special Sci-Fi Update! In November, 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 special episode focusing on the subject of "cattle mutilations," which have been popularized by such investigators as Linda Moulton Howe, who have laid the blame for these mysterious livestock deaths on "aliens." But there are cases of unsolved livestock deaths that have sinister, more down-to-earth overtones. Case in point: Werner Bock and other ranchers of the Maritime Provinces of Canada. For almost 40 years, these ranchers have been victimized by what could be described as a systematic campaign of terror and death. Bock will explain his frustrating attempts over the years to understand what happened to his livestock and who caused it.

    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.

    WHAT DOES APPLE HAVE AGAINST RAM UPGRADES?

    Remember the very first Mac back in 1984? I suspect many of you weren't around then, or were too young to notice or care, but it had a singular flaw that received its share of complaints. You couldn't upgrade the RAM. It was meant to be a computing appliance, and you would no more open the Mac's case to upgrade anything than you would open your refrigerator to swap out the compressor for a more powerful one.

    Later Macs could be upgraded, but that clearly wasn't the vision of Steve Jobs. But it didn't mean that RAM was easy or quick to replace. There were several Mac minitowers in the 1990s that forced you to remove the logic board and disconnect some flimsy cable assemblies to get at those RAM slots. When the first iMac arrived, the computer that signaled the resurrection of Apple, you had to pull out the entire electronic assembly to reach the RAM slots. Why did they design those things this way?

    You could clearly get the impression that Apple was hostile to people who wanted to upgrade RAM. Rather than have you go to an outside supplier to save money, they simply made the process impossible. Even when you could replace RAM, the process remained difficult, with the original Mac mini being the worst offender. Some companies even produced special style putty knives to ease the process of opening the delicate case, and forget about replacing the hard drive in a convenient fashion.

    When it came to later iMacs, the process became better before getting worse. Just open the cover at the bottom of the unit. Even the Mac mini got RAM upgrade religion in later revisions. Maybe Apple had gotten a dose of common sense.

    Until the MacBook Air arrived. In Apple's quest to make notebooks lighter and thinner, you cannot upgrade the RAM on a MacBook Air, since it's soldered to the logic board. I suppose actually outfitting the thing with real memory slots and a simple scheme to open the case would have detracted from the  thinness and the lightness, and hurt the smoothness of the exterior.

    Since upgrading notebook memory is usually done once, if at all, you're forced to buy the MacBook Air with the RAM you expect to need during its useful lifetime. The MacBook Pro with Retina display has the very same problem, but at least it ships with enough RAM for most of you direct from the factory.

    With the 2012 iMac, Apple took the schizophrenic approach. The 27-inch iMac has a convenient RAM cover in the rear, making it easy to access the four available slots. Not so for the 21.5-inch version, where RAM upgrades are not officially possible, though you can, I suppose, tear the thing apart and have at it. You can also, I suppose, attempt to solder new memory on your MacBook Air, but why?

    I understand why you might want to upgrade your Mac's RAM. Your needs change, or you buy a lower cost model to save some money, hoping to upgrade later. That's something Apple is clearly trying to discourage for more and more Mac users, but it seems more for design than practicality. Apple is presuming to guess what you need, even if it's not what you want.

    Now we all know how Apple is quickly removing optical drives from the Mac lineup. Among today's models, only a few MacBook Pros and the Mac Pro have optical drives. Apple has decreed that you will get most of your software and media content online, and thus not need to spend money for a component you will never -- or seldom -- use. But the one day you do need it, paying $79 for an Apple USB optical drive makes sense. At the same time, it's not as if the prices of new Macs are lower because internal optical drives are history, and how many of you really care that the new iMac has thin edges?

    At the end of the day, though, I understand why optical drives are disappearing, and not just because Apple selfishly wants you to get your content online -- and hopefully from them -- but making RAM upgrades difficult or impossible only inconveniences the customer. It's also not helpful to the third-party vendor who wants to sell you a RAM upgrade, an upgrade that will usually cost a lot less than the price Apple sets for the same part, from the same manufacturer.

    I understand why the iPhone and iPad are sold as closed boxes. The Lightning connector gets you external expansion, and don't forget the earphone jack and Bluetooth. In saying that, yes, I understand that some of you have the need to change batteries when you're out of power, and there's no place to recharge. There are accessories that will provide extra power when needed, and maybe only a few of you will bother, so why add an ugly slide out cover for people who will never use it?

    But I'd be curious to see how Apple VP Philip Schiller explains why easy RAM upgrades on Macs are meant to be an endangered species.

    SHOULD APPLE RESPOND TO MEDIA DEMANDS FOR A CHEAP IPHONE?

    In the months ahead of the arrival of the iPad mini, Apple was pressured left and right by the media to produce a smaller, cheaper iPad to stay ahead of Amazon and Google. That Apple did release an iPad mini, however, doesn't necessarily vindicate those demands. It may be all about expanding the lineup in a way that was conceived early on.

    Look, for example, at the way Steve Jobs dissed 7-inch tablets, saying you needed sandpaper to make your fingers small enough to use one. Those tablets are widescreen, hence in the horizontal position, have very little vertical space. This is a key edge in the design of the 7.85-inch iPad mini. With a standard 4:3 aspect ratio, you have far more room to actually do something, such as viewing a Web page, without constant, endless scrolling.

    So Jobs probably wasn't arguing against a smaller iPad, since he knew one was in the works. He was arguing against a smaller tablet that didn't provide enough useful screen space. That's the argument that can be made about those 5-inch tablets, or fablets, which attempt to combine the functions of a smartphone with a tablet. Those gadgets often include a stylus, which is so 1990s.

    When it comes to a lower cost iPhone, on my radio show the other day, a guest remarked that we already had a cheap iPhone -- a free one in fact, if you got an iPhone 4 with a two-year contract. But some people don't want to commit to long-term contracts, or maybe don't qualify for the basic credit requirements without having to pay a deposit. Once you pay a deposit, the cost advantage is sharply reduced. In some countries, there are no carrier subsidies. If you want a smartphone, you pay the price for the unlocked version, and even a "cheap" iPhone is $400.

    Now it so happens that T-Mobile, who is adding the iPhone some time this year, is going to abandon subsidy deals. Instead, you'll have to buy your handset up front at the regular price, but it appears they will let you pay it out over, say, 20 months. Once it's paid off, the price goes down, unlike other carriers where you pay the subsidized price even after the handset's original cost has been covered. But since many customers buy a new smartphone around the time the contract is up, maybe it doesn't matter.

    The real question, though, is not whether Apple wants to build an iPhone that's more affordable, it's whether they can deliver a product with the same level of quality as any other iPhone, and still make a decent profit. Apple doesn't play the same game as other companies, trading profits for volume, and hoping to come out of ahead. That marketing approach seldom works.

    There's no doubt that an iPhone mini, or entry-level iPhone selling for $199 or $299, would be a smashing success around the world. But could Apple retain a high build quality, and deliver the same experience as the more expensive models? These are the questions that probably weigh heavily on the minds of Apple's executive team. For that cheaper iPhone to launch, those questions will have to be answered in a way that makes sense to the company. It won't happen because the media demanded it, and it won't happen because Apple may be losing tens of millions -- hundreds of millions of sales -- because they don't do cheap.

    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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    10 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #686”

    1. Kaleberg says:

      How much extra are you willing to pay for the ability to upgrade the RAM on your computer? Is that more or less than the cost of the RAM upgrade? How much extra do you think a typical, non-technical user is willing to pay for the ability to upgrade RAM on his or her computer? Designing hardware for future retro-fits raises production costs and reduces product reliability. Easy upgrades also raise support costs, as not every user performed upgrade is done correctly and without side effects. I can't blame Apple for trying to meet most of their customers needs which are for reliability, support, small size, light weight and so on, rather than trying to please customers who want to tinker.

      I grew up near a neighborhood where no self respecting guy would drive a car with its factory standard engine or transmission. These guys may have cursed a lot, but they didn't whine that engines and transmissions were heavy and held in place with hard to torque bolts and that you had to take out the battery and just about everything else to get the old engine or gearbox out, and it was even worse squeezing in that sweet new 380cc V8. I think most of us are glad that we don't have to worry about our engines falling out just to make engine upgrades easy for the car guys.

      Reply To This Comment

      Gene Steinberg replied on January 21st, 2013 at 7:32 PM:

      @Kaleberg, So you are suggesting that it would cost -- what? -- $25, $100, more? to provide the ability to upgrade RAM on a MacBook Air?

      Just wondering.

      Peace,
      Gene

      Reply To This Comment

    2. Shoolie says:

      My theory is that a computer that is in general upgradable by the consumer is more expensive in many ways than a computer that is a sealed box.

      Specifically regarding RAM, it's more expensive to make a user-upgradeable computer because the logic board design has to accommodate the mechanical connectors, the connectors have to be purchased, and then assembled onto the logic board, and tested. The overall design of the computer has to accommodate the connectors in terms of size and access. Designing the access hatch and manufacturing it costs money too. Buying separate RAM chips in bulk must be cheaper than buying DIMMs. Users call support when their RAM upgrades go awry, and it takes time and expertise to deal with these users. And of course Apple marks up RAM over and above what the general market charges and makes a good profit on it.

      Soldering RAM directly onto the logic board simplifies the computer's design, simplifies its manufacture, decreases support costs, and generates good profits on overpriced RAM upgrades, even to the point that users are likely to max out the RAM at purchase time because they want to make sure that their computer will be usable over the coming years. If the computer fails outside of warranty, Apple can price repairs at their own sweet spot such that buying a newer computer is (or can be perceived to be) more cost-effective than repairing the failed one. This keeps older models out of the support queue.

      In short, Apple does this to control their market and make as much money as possible.

      Reply To This Comment

      Gene Steinberg replied on January 22nd, 2013 at 2:37 PM:

      @Shoolie, I understand there is some savings. Question is how much when you're building a million units.

      If the savings go into Apple's margins, though, who benefits? Not the consumer.

      Peace,
      Gene

      Reply To This Comment

    3. Shoolie says:

      @Gene, True, the consumer does not benefit with this strategy. I'm not sure that Apple is too concerned with this as long as their strategy keeps the company insanely profitable. Apple's strategy not only maximizes profit on pre-built product, but also allows Apple to take and maintain as much control as possible over their products and customers, and drive adoption of the latest models by making repair of older models undesirable because they can price repairs as too expensive. Apple wants to control their market as much as possible.

      Apple's behavior will not change unless and until their profits shrink to some point that it makes business sense for them to revert back to making upgradeable computers. This will not happen as long as the consumer public remains entranced and fascinated by the latest doo-dads that cannot be upgraded except through extraordinary means.

      Reply To This Comment

      Gene Steinberg replied on January 22nd, 2013 at 2:58 PM:

      @Shoolie, It may also come down to what percentage of users ever upgrade RAM on a notebook computer. If it's a very small number for MacBooks, it may not make sense from the bean counter's standpoint to add the appropriate hardware. If loads of customers complained, Apple would add it to keep your business. They are not totally oblivious to customer needs.

      Yes, they are ditching optical drives, but precious few customers use them anymore, so why have everyone pay for one? You want one, just buy the external USB drive, even if it's nowhere as neat when traveling.

      Peace,
      Gene

      Reply To This Comment

    4. Shoolie says:

      @Gene, how would Apple know what percentage of users upgrade their computers? I expect they would not have a very good idea unless people upgraded through Apple itself, which is simply foolish, given the prices Apple charges for RAM upgrades, and I'm not sure they will even do a hard drive or SDD upgrade.

      If loads of customers complain, maybe Apple would consider redesigning a product to be upgradeable, but this change would take a lot of complaints along with a significant drop in sales and/or profits to justify the redesign and retooling required to make the new product.

      Providing what customers "need" is a delicate balance of public relations, cost, and profit. And if you control your market, you can in effect drive what customers "need." Need 16gb of memory? Buy it at the outset. Not sure if you need it or not? Then don't buy it, and buy a newer computer sooner that has it, or suffer the consequences of not having it; or just spend the extra up front to buy it, even though you're not sure you need it.

      As you mention, optical drives are a different question. There are workarounds for not having one: digital downloads, sharing an optical drive on another Mac, or simply borrowing a drive from a friend. You can't do these things with RAM. If you don't have enough, and can't upgrade, you have to make a decision to buy a new computer or suffer the consequences. Many will see this dilemma from the outset and just get the extra RAM at purchase time "just to be sure," and Apple benefits from these purchases that they have driven through their strategy of making computers that cannot be upgraded.

      Reply To This Comment

      Gene Steinberg replied on January 22nd, 2013 at 3:19 PM:

      @Shoolie, I am sure they know how many RAM upgrades they sell, and I am sure they handle enough support issues to get a sense how many people are doing the upgrades for themselves. They don't live in a vacuum by any means.

      The larger problem, of course, is the third-party supplier who is losing lots of business from Apple, with 75% of new Macs being notebooks, and most of those lacking an upgrade capability.

      For the customer: The only advice is to buy the non-upgradeable Mac with the RAM you need from Day One.

      Peace,
      Gene

      Reply To This Comment

    5. jbird says:

      It's called "planned obsolescence." If you can't upgrade your existing equipment, then it won't last as long, and consequently they will sell more new units. If you CAN upgrade, then you have to get a new operating system and new software, so they sell THAT. It has really become a scam.

      I'm using a Powerbook G4 right now with maxed-out RAM and an upgraded OS (10.5.8). It won't do video that well and the latest and greatest Adobe Flash won't run on it, but otherwise it does virtually everything I want it to do, and it does it faster (except video) than any of my three Intel Macs. Go figure.

      I'm frankly tired of having to upgrade my computer software and hardware every time I turn around. My computer is just another appliance. I don't expect to upgrade my refrigerator, stove, washing machine or car to continue to use them, but it seems as though the manufacturers have suckered us into the idea that we need to buy either a new computer or new operating system every couple of years.

      Reply To This Comment

    6. Bill in NC says:

      Cheap SSDs are making RAM upgrades moot for most of us.

      My kid is still using a 5 year old white MacBook - upgraded to 4GB RAM when I first bought it.

      It is possible to upgrade it to 8GB RAM (DDR2), but not worth spending $120 when I can drop in a $160 250GB SSD instead.

      The latter made it fly - the kid was never going to run any program that would need 8GB RAM anyway.

      By this Xmas I bet I can find a 500GB SSD for $250, at which point I'll drop one in my 2009 MBP.

      Reply To This Comment

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