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  • Newsletter Issue #711

    July 15th, 2013

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    So who was guilty? Did Apple really conspire with five major book publishers to fix eBook pricing, or was Amazon the true villain, having started all this by undercutting other vendors by selling them for below cost?

    When I invited guests to talk about the case on this weekend's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we ended up focusing a large part of the show on Apple's skirmish with the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged eBook price-fixing. Federal District Court Judge Denise L. Cote last week found Apple guilty; Apple plans to appeal. But was this decision fair? What about Amazon, and why wasn't that company's actions to set very low eBook prices, below what they actually paid the publishers, considered by antitrust officials as anticompetitive?

    We had two points of view on this case, from Adam Engst, of TidBITS and Take Control Books, and Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer. Bryan also discussed Microsoft's latest version of corporate musical chairs, and whether it will help the company regroup and solve key long-term problems. He also went over the key points of an article from a tech blog claiming that there are 25 reasons why the iPhone is old fashioned.

    Now I'm of mixed feelings about the antitrust case. I tend to think that Apple might not have fully realized the impact of their actions, since being in the eBook business was something very new to the company when those contracts were negotiated. It's also true that eBook prices rose as the result of the deal Apple crafted with the industry, so does that benefit the public? Clearly there are loads of gray areas involved, and I wouldn't presume to understand the ins and outs of antitrust law. But I do wonder whether Amazon will be let off scot-free. I cannot see how they are necessarily innocent of wrongdoing as the instigator of this alleged misbehavior.

    On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a full-scale discussion of a classic UFO encounter, the Cash-Landrum incident, which occurred on an isolated two-lane road near Houston, Texas on December 29, 1980. This sighting includes a witness who received possible severe radiation burns as the result of being in close proximity to the strange aircraft. To flesh out the nuts and bolts of the case, we invited two UFO investigators, Chris Lambright and Curtis L. Collins (whom our forum members know as Sentry).

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt! 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.

    THEY TELL APPLE WHAT PRODUCTS TO MAKE

    One thing is certain, and that is that Apple is extremely selective about which products to produce. Or at least that's how it is nowadays. During the 1990s, before Steve Jobs returned to the company, you almost wondered if Apple would soon be selling refrigerators and toaster ovens. The product lineups were so extensive, you wondered what they wouldn't make.

    In those days, Apple sold printers, cameras, and other gear not quite related to personal computers, not to mention the Newton MessagePad, an early mobile computing device. There were so many Macs, even the executives would have difficulty telling one from another. But that was little different from other tech companies who pursued the same strategy, to market as many product lines as they could handle, and maybe they went too far, with loads of slightly different models to target all sorts of real or imagined product segments.

    In one of his first acts, Steve Jobs cut the fat, the unproductive products, or the products that moved Apple into what he perceived as the wrong direction. Even printers, which helped the Mac gain credibility in the 1980s as the result of Adobe PostScript and desktop publishing, were history.

    Apple really didn't fully return to the consumer electronics game until 2001, with the release of the iPod. Predictably, the critics concluded that Apple couldn't possibly succeed with a product that was outside their zone, their perceived expertise. If it's not a Mac, forget about it.

    The stellar success of the iPod ultimately led to the iPhone and the iPad. Both were greeted with jeers from critics who again concluded Apple couldn't make a go of it. Both succeeded beyond most anyone's wildest dreams. In passing, it's fair to consider the iPad as a somewhat distant descendant of the original MessagePad. Regardless, wishes for Apple to fail yet again remained unfulfilled.

    Sure there is a less successful product, the Apple TV. But Apple asserts it is meant as a hobby, to see where the goal to dominate the living room will lead. At the same time, Apple TV appears to remain dominant among media streaming gear for your TV set.

    These days, however, the critics are no longer telling Apple what not to build. Instead, they are sometimes demanding that Apple expand existing product lines, or move into new segments of their choosing. Under the surface, you almost think there's a suggestion that Apple is incompetent. So how did Apple achieve its stellar status in the industrial world? Smoke and mirrors? The legendary Steve Jobs "reality distortion field?" Did Apple manage to hypnotize people into visiting the neighborhood Apple Store and buying their gadgets?

    So there is the demand that Apple must build a cheaper iPhone. Why? Well, because sales of high-end smartphones have apparently reached a plateau, and much of the market is dominated by less expensive gear. Sure Apple appears to know this, witness continuing to build older models, the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4s, which are meant to serve the market for handsets that aren't leading edge, less expensive to buy, even without a carrier contract, but still retain the Apple halo.

    Now this is one area where the critics might have a point. It may well be that Apple would do better building a lower cost handset from scratch, relying on economies of scale and the use of less expensive parts, to keep the price down. It won't magically appear for $199, but perhaps Apple could achieve a $299 purchase price without the carrier subsidy, yet still secure a reasonable profit from each sale.

    What the critics continue to fail to understand is that Apple would rather sell 100 gadgets at a good profit than 10,000 gadgets with a much lower profit margin. Apple has traditionally avoided the bottom feeders in the PC market, and the Mac remains highly successful. Sure, sales have flattened now that tablets and even smartphones perform many of the functions of a personal computer. But Apple continues to make large profits from Macs. No doubt the margins of the forthcoming Mac Pro, which won't be cheap, will be even higher than on the rest of the lineup.

    Other demands cover TV sets and even enhanced wearable devices. When it comes to TV, the industry is moving towards larger screens and new technologies, such as Ultra HD (or 4K) to fuel sales now that people are not rushing to buy mainstream sets as they used to. The hope is that, as 4K technology improves, the high-priced set will become medium-priced, and if a reasonable selection of content accompanies the arrival of the higher resolution models, maybe all those millions of people with flat panel TVs will buy one. One big problem is that getting a decade's use out of even the lower priced sets is probably a given. So why should people upgrade?

    Maybe the arrival of an Apple connected TV will change that, but I haven't seen a compelling argument for the company to get into that business. The potential of the Apple TV has surely not been realized yet. Maybe a souped up set top box is the best solution, but I'm not going to tell Apple what to do.

    Then there's the iWatch. It would seem a given inasmuch as Apple has applied for the trademark in a number of countries. This, of course, may be a hedge towards a possible future product that may never come to be. However, in an era where the young people who embrace new tech fads generally don't wear watches, an iWatch of whatever sort — standalone or an accessory for a smartphone — may have limited potential.

    I am quite sure Apple has loads of new products in various stages of development. Some may come to be, and most won't. But not because someone from the media or financial community says it must be so.

    AT&T AND OTHER CARRIERS PUSH LARGE SAMSUNG GALAXY S4 UPDATE

    Whenever an Android handset receives an update, it has to be a major event. It sure doesn't happen very often, and usually not at all. But this past weekend, a 357 MB update went live to owners of the flagship Samsung Galaxy S4 smartphone from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon; I don't know about carriers in other countries. Depending on which carrier you use, you may see a different set of fixes and changes.

    So the AT&T update fixes the firmware, resolves a reboot issue, enhances LTE networking, and promises fixes to the Email and Calendar apps among other things. Other reports speak of adding an "apps to SD" function, which allows you to offload apps to an SD card. There's also supposed to be changes to Samsung Knox security software and the addition of a locked bootloader, which would make jail braking or rooting the device more difficult.

    Now I wasn't actually notified of the update on the AT&T network. Nothing appeared in the Notification screen, or the status bar. I just happened to do a routine check, and found one available. I don't know if AT&T's update servers were swamped, but it took about an hour to retrieve the file. An Apple update of that size would routinely arrive in just a few minutes with the same broadband connection.

    Having observed the iPhone and iPad update procedure on a number of occasions, it appears that Samsung's process is similar, but the "Update" status bar on reboot was so small as to require a magnifying glass to see, even when I had my reading glasses on. Clearly that's an interface element that doesn't receive high priority. After reboot, I saw a  prompt about updating Android, but the version number, Jelly Bean 4.2.2, was unchanged.

    After reboot, the S4 didn't seem any different, although those irritating performance lags and app crashes are no longer quite as frequent. Scrolling and app lunch functions are smoother and faster. Battery life may even have improved somewhat, but that's strictly a subjective reaction. Despite having a larger battery than the Galaxy S3, the S4 still doesn't hold up quite as well as, say, an iPhone 4s. That goes against some of the reviews you may have read, but that's how it is for me, and I don't tend to run resource consuming apps.

    When it comes to fixing Email, that curious problem related to viewing emails sent by the app via an IMAP account on another device (a Mac, PC, even an iPad), where the text is repeated twice, has not been fixed. It's not that Samsung is unaware of the problem, since they duplicated the issue when I first reported it months ago.

    Regardless, if you are an S4 owner, I would recommend the update. It does no harm, and may make your smartphone run somewhat better.

    But here's another curiosity: Since setting up the S4 in May, I experienced more call disconnects than with the iPhone or the Galaxy S3. Since it didn't happen very often, I didn't make an issue of the problem with AT&T, until I encountered a raft of disconnects while at a shopping center near Phoenix a few days ago. So I called AT&T and complained. During their diagnostics, they discovered that they had the wrong configuration information for the device for some reason. This evidently occurred when the S4's SIMM card was first activated, I suppose.

    Regardless, after fixing the problem at their end, the AT&T tech asked me to shut down the S4 and reboot after 30 seconds to activate the changes. The quality and reliability of phone calls has improved noticeably, and I haven't seen it drop a call since. Just a word to the wise in case your smartphone isn't delivering the performance you expect. And, by the way, AT&T gave me a one month credit for my trouble. Clearly they are feeling the competition from the likes of T-Mobile, I expect, and I have to tell you I'm still seriously considering whether I should switch when my contract is up.

    Maybe after the next iPhone arrives this fall.

    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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