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  • Newsletter Issue #741

    February 10th, 2014

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    So how would an incoming company CEO feel with a co-founder on hand to ease the transition — or watch what he’s doing? I suppose that’s the two-edge sword for Satya Nadella as he takes over as Steve Ballmer’s replacement at Microsoft.

    Now Nadella is clearly on a different wavelength than Ballmer. It’s clear that Ballmer, whose work experience involved sales before he became CEO, never quite understood how technology works and how the industry has changed with the move towards mobile devices. When he tried to cheer up developers with his infamous phrase, “developers, developers, developers,” the words came from someone who had no clue how to write a single line of code.

    In contrast, Nadella, who has a master’s degree in computer science, was most recently head of the company’s cloud and enterprise division. But does he understand how to handle consumer gear, or does this signify an attempt by Microsoft to regroup and focus more on business-oriented products and services? If that’s the case, does it mean that the Xbox and perhaps even the newly-acquired Nokia mobile handset division will be pawned off to someone else?

    Dumping Nokia right after acquisition may not seem to make a lot of sense, though. Nadella might just want to give it time and see how things develop. And, with Gates looking on, you wonder whether anything is going to change very quickly at all. After all, Microsoft had the corporate reorganization last year, so maybe Gates will be calling the shots all over again, and Nadella will do the day-to-day execution.

    Why am I not surprised?

    So on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, the discussions covered a wide range of subjects. You heard our reaction to Google’s decision to sell the Motorola Mobility handset division to Lenovo, an Asian PC maker, the state of the PC industry in light of Sony’s decision to leave the PC box business, Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, whether having co-founder Bill Gates looking over his shoulder will help or hurt his performance, and the prospects for an iWatch and an Apple connected TV.

    Our guests this week included industry analyst Stephen Baker, Vice President for Industry Analysis at the NPD Group and outspoken columnist Bryan Chaffin, co-founder and co-publisher of The Mac Observer.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present veteran UFO investigator and photographic expert Dr. Bruce Maccabee. The controversial Gulf Breeze UFO flap of the 1980s and 1990s is one of the main topics on the agenda, but we’ll be covering his other work in the field that focuses mainly on UFO photos and accompanying evidence.

    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.

    APPLE AND NEW PRODUCT CATEGORIES

    You’ve heard the promise from Tim Cook over and over again, that Apple has new products in the pipeline for 2014 that will amaze us, and besides, they will be in new categories. In other words, he’s clearly implying that Apple is going to attempt to recreate the magic of the introduction of the original iPhone and iPad.

    Or that’s how it seems, although the promise is vague enough not to predict any product or product category.

    But it’s also clear that, for Cook to fulfill that promise — and I expect that he will — you’d have to see something more than a fancy iPhone, iPad or Mac refresh. A new product category clearly means none of the above.

    Unlike his predecessor, Cook isn’t apt to exaggerate something for its marketing impact. So you had the situation where Steve Jobs famously denigrated mobile handsets while, at the same time, quietly shepherding the iPhone project. Don’t forget, too, how Apple denied any plans to make a cheap Mac not so many weeks before the Mac mini came out.

    In the scheme of things, I grant that a Mac mini, Apple’s cheapest traditional personal computer, would be considered mid-priced compared to a Windows PC. The MacBook Air is actually on the high side, although it’s competitive with those thin and light Ultrabooks.

    But Cook continues to drop overly broad hints at the product categories Apple plans to enter. Talking of an intense interest in wearables is an obvious reveal. Does it mean there’s an iWatch in our future, a shoulder pad — what? Where does Apple plan to take that technology, and can they build something you didn’t know you needed until it was actually put on sale?

    You see, wristwatches, while still relatively plentiful in the scheme of things, don’t necessarily appeal to younger people. Members of Generation Y may simply pluck out their smartphones to find out the time. My 27-year-old son, as an example, gave up on a watch long ago, and I don’t know what Apple would have to do to persuade him to change his mind, even if he had the spare cash to buy some new and untested gadget.

    So what does Apple do to make an iWatch, or similar device, irresistible? True Apple has hired people from the fashion and health industry in recent months, so something is afoot, but I wouldn’t presume to know what or how it’ll be implemented. Some of this may even be about expanding the capabilities of the iPhone and the iPad. It doesn’t have to be an iWatch.

    With the living room, I still fail to see where an Apple connected TV fits in. A nascent market it’s not, and how does the fanciest magical interface ever really overhaul your living room experience? Or is that really Apple’s intent?

    Other than the initial setup process, an Apple TV box that offers the spiffy magical interface, and smoothly integrates all the gear connected to your TV — including gaming console and home theater sound system — might get the job done. Does Apple really have to enter the overcrowded big box business?

    What about licensing Apple TV technology to existing TV makers, but requiring a qualification process where supported models might have to meet certain minimum standards for picture quality, ease of setup and design?

    The long and short of it is that I don’t think Cook would keep talking about new product initiatives unless there was some truth behind it. Indeed, if he suggested it might take a little longer than the final quarter of 2014 to deliver something, the skeptics would quickly overwhelm the message. Cook couldn’t talk his way out of that one, so I expect something real is in the pipeline.

    A CASUAL ENCOUNTER WITH ULTRA HD

    The new kid on the block in the TV market is 4K or Ultra HD. Coping with a saturated market, where the high definition revolution has mostly run it course except for replacement of older sets, the industry has been fighting flat sales and sagging profits with new features, or gimmicks, depending on your point of view.

    First, in the aftermath of the success of James Cameron’s blockbuster 3D movie, “Avatar,” you saw more and more sets equipped with some sort of 3D feature. While there was plenty of customer resistance at the high-end, cheaper 3D gear was meant to drive sales.

    Sure, sets sold, but 3D wasn’t much of a factor. A 3D cable sports channel gave up the ghost, and you wonder how many people were willing to pay extra for a 3D version of a Blu-ray disc.

    Well, this year, the TV makers are at it again. Most sets have some sort of connected or “smart” feature, with extra apps such as Netflix and Hulu to flesh out the normal fare from cable and satellite providers. So where do you go from there to persuade people to upgrade?

    Well, how about four times as many pixels? That’s what Ultra HD, or 4K, is all about. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, more and more TV makers introduced Ultra HD gear, and not always for the most expensive models. VIZIO’s “P” series starts at less than $1,000 for a 50-inch set, and the new sets should arrive some time later this year. But nothing was said about 3D in the specs for the new VIZIO gear, and other TV makers are also trimming 3D from their lineups, but not for all models.

    For now Ultra HD is in the chicken and egg situation, with a growing number of sets but not much content. Since the sets upscale standard 1080p fare, though, even a normal picture should be visibly better if the conversion is done well. The larger number of pixels can, in the best sets, also deliver superior color.

    The problem with Ultra HD is what you already see on computers and mobile gear with Retina or HD displays. At a normal viewing distance, there are just so many pixels needed before adding more simply doesn’t have a visible effect. Samsung advertises over 400 pixels per inch on the Galaxy S4 smartphone, but it’s not visibly different from the over 300 pixels on the previous model, the Galaxy S3. Apple uses over 300 pixels as well, and it’s just fine.

    So the problem TV makers face is that Ultra HD’s advantage will only be apparent on larger sets, or when viewed at a short distance. Otherwise the difference won’t make a difference except, of course, for the possibility of superior color reproduction.

    Regardless of the shortcomings, I did have a chance to actually see Ultra HD in action this past weekend on a shopping trip to a Sam’s Club discount store near Phoenix. On display along with dozens and dozens regular HD sets, was a 55-inch Samsung “3D LED WiFI 4K Ultra HDTV,” otherwise identified by its model number, UN55F9000.

    At $2,998, the Samsung is quite a bit more expensive than the relatively low-end gear that normally shows up at a Sam’s club. It’s also a 2013 model, meaning some of the newest technologies, such as HDMI 2.0, aren’t supported.

    In any case, the Samsung even had its own display corner, no doubt funded with a spiff from the manufacturer, where I got to see it in operation. Unfortunately, the content wasn’t an action movie, or a sporting event, but a still photo. It’s all designed to make the resolution difference far more visible, and, from a couple of feet away, the improvement was significant. The photo, depicting buildings in a large city, was amazingly sharp, with colors that seemed to pop out at you.

    The Samsung also had a pretty good viewing angle for an LED set, though you could see some image falloff at the extremes. One of the shortcomings of LCD-based sets is the inferior viewing angle, particularly when compared to plasma, which is now a fading format. But performance continues to improve, particularly at the extremes.

    Unfortunately, TV sets in a store setting are usually configured to use a special display configuration that exaggerates everything. So the corners of the still image on the Samsung were maybe too sharp with noticeable edge enhancement. Rather than being super realistic, everything seemed somewhat artificial.

    Now the Samsung is one of the first Ultra HD sets on the market, and will soon be replaced with a newer model. It did, however, receive a fairly high 72 rating from Consumer Reports magazine when it was reviewed last year. CR complained about the poor viewing angle (my brief experience with the set failed to confirm this) and a glossy screen with too many reflections, but otherwise gave the set high marks for image quality, color accuracy and black levels.

    If I was in the market for Ultra HD, however, I would wait for the technology to mature — and the prices to drop, as they will this year when more sets become available. It would also be nice to have some genuine Ultra HD content. Netflix plans to jump into the fray, but you’ll need a broadband connection with a consistent speed that’s over 15 megabits a second to take advantage of the higher resolution. Add to that the bandwidth consumed by your other gear, and I expect you’ll need from 30 to 45 megabits to get a consistently good picture.

    The higher bandwidth requirements are also going to make it difficult for cable and satellite providers to jump aboard with very much 4K fare, but you’ll soon see a Blu-ray player that supports Ultra HD. The Blu-ray Disc Association has approved the formet, so you may expect the first models to appear by the latter part of the year, with 4K content following soon thereafter.

    So it appears that the industry is making a huge 4K push. But it’s understandable that most people will be inclined to take wait-and-see attitudes for a while.

    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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