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  • Newsletter Issue #735

    December 30th, 2013

    THIS WEEK'S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    In 2013, a number of tech and financial pundits made you wonder if Apple could possibly survive, what with the stock price tanking and all sorts of rumors that the company was being overwhelmed by the competition, particularly Samsung and Google.

    Well, it didn't quite turn out that way, and with news that iPhones would be sold by the world's largest wireless carrier, China Mobile, beginning in 2014, it appeared that millions and millions of additional units would be sold. But that's before you consider how or even whether Apple would fulfill the promises of entering new product categories in the coming year.

    In any case, on this week's episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we featured tech columnist and commentator Dann Berg, who gave us an overview of developments in the tech field in 2013 and speculated on what might happen in 2014. He covered such topics as the possibility that American wireless carriers Sprint and T-Mobile might merge, the prospects for the new TV format, Ultra HD, also known as 4K, whether Apple might introduce a connected TV set, and the possibilities for a wearable device such as an iWatch.

    You also heard from cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider, who explored the fact that the brand new 2013 Mac Pro is a lot cheaper than even do-it-yourself Windows PC workstations. He also focused on the possibilities for Ultra HD, and the fact that, this year, the iOS had five times as many users doing online Christmas shopping as Android in the U.S., according to an IBM survey.

    Now the long and short of it is that the TV makers are desperate to find something different to entice you to buy a new set in a saturated market. 3D was an also-ran, although it's still widely available on most everything from the mid-range of a product line on up. So, therefore, 4K, or Ultra HD, is going to make a huge splash. There will probably be an Ultra HD version of Blu-ray, and Netflix and other online streaming services will be supporting the format very soon now.

    It doesn't matter that you need to be close to your set, or get one with a screen that's over 60 inches, before you see much of a difference between 4K and today's 1080p standard. But the promise of four times as many pixels, coupled with a reasonably affordable price tag, ought to make the difference. Well, at least until they are ready to sell you 8K TVs.

    On this week's episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris catch up on 2013 and lots more with the one and only and always Don Ecker, host of the Dark Matters radio show, to discuss this crazy year, the "other" Dark Matter show, and a whole lot more. You'll hear Don's reaction to the constant onslaught of UFO fakers, who are exposed only to return shortly thereafter as if nothing ever happened. Is there hope for the UFO field and learning about what's really happening in 2014 — or ever?

    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.

    WERE THESE EPIC FAILS FOR 2013?

    You just know that, if you were sick of those 10 best or 10 worst listicles through the year, prepare for a surfeit of them to close the year. Some were designed just to fill space, but certainly a few were well-considered, with a solid factual basis.

    So we have an online publication, 24/7 Wall Street, which reported about "The Worst Product Flops of 2013," and there's plenty of meat and potatoes to chew on among the seven items that are presented. For one thing, there don't seem to be any obvious efforts to advance an agenda. Just let the facts fall where they may.

    Now among the listed products is a movie. After all, entertainment companies consider their work "product," so it stands to reason that an expensive dud of a picture would get a prime listing. So we have Disney's "The Lone Ranger," an attempted reinvention of an old franchise that began as a radio show in the 1930s. The film allegedly cost around $250 million to shoot. With such A-list talents as Johnny Depp as Tonto and movie and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer onboard, you'd expect a sure-fire success. Instead, Disney may lose up to $190 million from this unfortunate enterprise despite a worldwide gross of over $261 million, making it another Hollywood excess that went nowhere.

    As you might expect, the tech industry had its share of misbegotten gadgets. First on the list was Nintendo's Wii U, a surprising failure from a gaming industry pioneer. Despite heavy promotion of the Wii's successor, it just didn't hold a candle against the Sony PlayStation 4 or Microsoft's Xbox One. But I wouldn't presume to guess why, since I'm not into gaming.

    There's also the BlackBerry Q10, symbolic of the company's inability to get anywhere with new products. Despite getting a spate of positive reviews from The New York Times and elsewhere, the public failed to respond. This was the product that was supposed to revitalize BlackBerry and, instead, multibillion dollar losses have put the company's very future in jeopardy. However, they aren't listed as one of the publication's "Ten Brands That Will Disappear in 2014." But I'll get to that shortly.

    Two tech powerhouses also failed to get the love with some of their gear. Number five on the list is the HP Chromebook 11, a $279 notebook computer that uses Google's Web-based Chrome OS. Now Chrome really hasn't had anywhere near the level of impact as Android, though it may actually have potential. Unfortunately, the Chromebook 11 was pulled from the market during the heart of the holiday season because of reports that some battery chargers might overheat. In December, some 145,000 of those chargers were recalled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

    Now in the scheme of things Chrome OS isn't doing badly. According to a report from the NDP Group, which tends to be pretty accurate about such things, sales of chromebooks grew to 9.6% this year, compared to 0.2% last year. That's pretty good, even better than Apple's notebooks. Sure, netbooks grew fast at the start too, but they didn't have staying power. It's a question whether Google's desktop OS will fare any better on the long haul, unless customers decide they like it.

    There is yet one more failure to mention, the Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch. At a street price of $299.99, it's twice as expensive as the Pebble, which appears to do pretty much the same things with a much wider range of supported smartphones with which to mate. According to the 24/7 Wall Street report, Business Korea claimed that only 50,000 Galaxy Gears were sold. Samsung claimed 800,000, but later admitted a truth that applies to lots of their boasts of huge sales. It was all about shipments, not sales, and Best Buy reportedly claimed, in a document unearthed by the media, that a third of those actually sold were returned by dissatisfied customers.

    So much for the Galaxy Gear.

    Now about the brands that may disappear, the publication lists J.C. Penney as number one. The department store chain is still attempting to recover from the ills caused when former CEO Ron Johnson tried to do too much too fast, and turned off loads of customers.

    The list also includes the Barnes & Noble Nook eReader and, believe it or not, Volvo and Mitsubishi Motors. Also Road & Track magazine. But it may well be that these predictions of doom and gloom won't all come to pass. After all, some pundits are still predicting that Apple was just a flash in the pan and that its best days are behind it, but, no, there's nothing in either 24/7 Wall Street article about Apple's prospects.

    YET ANOTHER LOOK AT THE ILLS OF CABLE TV BUNDLING

    Both cable and satellite providers in the U.S. offer very much the same bundles. Get up to 300 channels, free HD for life (whose life?), a DVR with multi-room capability and possibly a generous collection of premium fare.

    To experience all this joy at a really, really cheap price, you just have to sign up for a year or two. But it gets complicated, because some discounts last two or three months, others six months, and only a few survive the full year. So you end up with periodic price increases until the actual retail price is achieved.

    One notorious example is Dish Network, which will charge you less than $60 per month for just about everything for the first three months. Everything includes the Dish Hopper, which is one of those DVRs that records several shows at once and, with certain limitations, auto-skips TV spots. And, yes, the entertainment companies have sued and lost, so it may be the best way to avoid the ads, at least on regular TV networks, without having to hit the fast forward button.

    If you find it too expensive after the discounts have expired, I suppose you can sign up with someone else's bundle and start all over again. Indeed, with growth of these services slowing, I wonder how many customer conquests are actually from other services in search of something cheaper, rather than people just starting up from scratch.

    Now if you want to spend less after the discounts have expired, you will face some confusing choices about which channels you have to leave on the table. There's no such thing as ala carte, even though it would be nice to just pay for the stations you want. Both the carriers and the networks, however, aren't organized that way. The networks will usually offer popular channels to the providers as a bundle that includes stuff you never heard of. Take it all or leave it. I suppose it's true that you might discover a real treasure among those also-ran channels if you had them as part of the bundle.

    For peculiar reasons, however, you may have to upgrade the service to get certain stations. So, for example, if you want BBC America to see Dr. Who and other great shows, you may be forced to take a higher tier. Don't ask me why. A member of the family encountered a similar dilemma when she wanted CLOO, an NBCUniversal channel that offers reruns of popular series fare, such as "Burn Notice," "CSI," "House," "Monk," "NCIS," and "Law & Order Special Victims Unit." CLOO originally debuted in 2006 as Sleuth.

    Unfortunately, most cable and satellite providers don't offer CLOO, which isn't even available in HD as far as I can see from the network's site. Among the services that do provide the channel in the Phoenix area are CenturyLink's Prism, which is being rolled out in a handful of selected cities, and DirecTV. But to add it to your DirecTV package, you need to subscribe to one of the two most expensive tiers, Ultimate or Premiere. The latter is sort of all-inclusive, meaning there are still extra packages, but not many.

    Now CLOO isn't unique. There are other channels that require you to accept a costlier package than you'd like, which may benefit the provider but not the customer. I don't know anyone who takes full advantage of having 200 or 300 channels available.

    Of course this cable/satellite saturation may be yet another reason to simply cut the cord, and depend on a streaming service for your favorite programming, such as Hulu Plus and Netflix.  If you're willing to give up on time-shifting and just want to watch network fare as it's broadcast, I suppose there's always the old fashioned antenna. Indeed, I tried one on the Vizio HD set recently, a Radio Shack antenna that cost about $25. Reception at about 25 miles from the broadcast towers in Phoenix was decent for the most part, with occasional picture breakup, though the local NBC outlet somehow wasn't recognized during the initial channel setup process.

    If you're willing to sacrifice convenience, and you have had enough of having unneeded channels forced down your throat, however, you may find that the cheap route is just fine. But when you see those ubiquitous ads for a cable or satellite service, and how they can save you tons of money for zillions of channels, just be aware of what your getting, and what the price will be after the promotional schemes have expired.

    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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