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  • Newsletter Issue #269

    January 24th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S MAC NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    Years ago, I worked as a news broadcaster, so I’m aware of tight deadlines and last-minute changes. Thus I wasn’t terribly surprised that we had to do a little rapid footwork to get the January 20th show on the air. First I had concerns about doing a taped interview with Amanda Lefebvre, Product Manager for Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit. Grayson and I taped an 18-1/2 minute session with Microsoft at the Macworld Expo, and it went just fine, or seemed to, until I had the sudden urge to play back a segment to see how it all turned out.

    To our surprise, all we had was silence, 18-1/2 minutes of silence. I began to think of the infamous gap of that duration in tapes made of meetings in the Nixon White House over 30 years ago. No connection, of course, other than what Grayson called, with tongue in cheek, “the 18-1/2 minute curse.” In any event, the interview with Ms. Lefebvre ran over 20 minutes, and it turned out just fine.

    (Although this is only indirectly connected to the story, we recently read about the passing of Rose Mary Woods, the devoted secretary to President Nixon during that era. She is the person who claimed to be inadvertently responsible for causing that 18-1/2 minute gap in a crucial Watergate tape.)

    We also featured computer guru Pieter Paulson and another trip into the wacky and often controversial “David Biedny Zone.” Here David waxed enthusiastic about the Mac mini and iPod shuffle. When asked if the mini, for example, would be successful, all he had to say was “you know it will.”

    The January 27th episode will feature Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, and also a discussion about the newly released QuicKeys X3. Another guest will be announced later this week.

    Meantime, if you haven’t heard the show, be sure to visit The Tech Night Owl LIVE Web site to listen to one of our archives. Enjoy.

    GOING HEAD-TO-HEAD WITH PC BOXES

    To begin with, it was inevitable that Apple would have to seriously consider spreading the joy of the Mac mini to dealers that normally don’t carry its computers. While previous forays into that arena have met with limited success, Best Buy still lists Apple products at its Web site, although only the iPods are available in the stores.

    But what about the Mac mini? Surely it is tailor made for stores that cater to the mass market, right? It isn’t the sort of product that requires a lot in the way of demonstration. Just the cute box connected to a 20-inch Apple LCD running a demo presentation, a well-lit counter with appropriate signage, and keep the sales droids away so they don’t mess it up. Put it right up close to the iPods, add the Apple Pro keyboard and mouse and let the thing sell itself. After all you can’t depend on any meaningful help in those stores. Back it up with a major ad campaign, and that should do it.

    In any case, it appears Apple may be moving in that direction, witness the fact that Target’s online store lists the mini. It’s not yet clear whether they’ll show up in the stores themselves, but I suppose we’ll know soon enough. Now perhaps Target is simply a grand experiment, just to see if the mini can hold its own against those ugly PC boxes that anonymously line the shelves of those stores.

    As some of you know, Apple has been there before. Do you recall the infamous Performa series? These were low-cost models, or low-cost for a Mac anyway, which were distributed not only through the normal dealer channels but in such mass-market outlets as Circuit City and Sears. As you might expect, these interlopers with an alien operating system got short shrift compared to all those Windows boxes. In effect, Macs were left catching dust, and that’s no exaggeration. I recall visiting a Circuit City in the Performa’s heyday, and found one of them lost in a corner, screen frozen, with a layer of dust on the top of its display. Yes, I’m quite serious.

    Of course, in those days, Apple didn’t understand style beyond that of its operating system. So the dull beige Performas didn’t distinguish themselves from the competition. To make matters worse, there were so many minor variations in model numbers, even Apple’s own executives probably couldn’t separate them without a scorecard. Sure, it was true that such minor model distinctions pollute the Windows marketplace, but that didn’t help the Mac to stand out.

    When Steve Jobs came onboard, he not only discontinued the poor-selling models, but began to pull product from dealers that didn’t do the right thing for the company. As Macs became more stylish, it seemed the company was destined to become a boutique brand. Of course, the iPod’s huge success, which I’m sure nobody expected, clearly encouraged Apple’s change of tune.

    So will Macs in a store like Target succeed this time out? Well, it’s possible, I suppose, but there has to be an awful lot of advertising so people know to look for one. That and an appropriate setting where it can also attract casual shoppers. But I’ll let the marketing experts figure out that one.

    It’s also true that Apple doesn’t have an awful lot of time to benefit from the iPod’s success. It may not happen this year, but eventually the player’s luster will dim, unless Jobs and crew can come up with more variations or innovative products that extend the joy to other consumer electronics categories. Before that happens, I think Apple needs to real work hard to take advantage of the goodwill it has generated among Windows users.

    As I sit and watch those ubiquitous ads for Dell, Gateway and all the rest, I just wonder what there is to distinguish one of these offerings from the other. Prices are pretty much the same within a narrow range for similar products. Without looking at the brand name, you probably couldn’t tell one from the other. But those things sell by the ton.

    I expect bland is in when it comes to business, but Apple is trying to show there’s a better way. The Mac mini, if it continues to move well, may well show that better way to a whole lot of new customers. Despite what some think, however, nothing is certain when it comes to the retail market. From my vantage point, it sure seems that this diminutive Mac has the right ingredients to be a smashing success, but what do I know?

    But it’s up to the eternally fickle marketplace to decide whether or not the Mac mini grabs all those potential Windows switchers, and Mac users looking for an inexpensive second computer, or ends up as just another Cube.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: VOOM AND BUST

    I have to admit that I was hopeful when I first heard about a new satellite TV service that specialized in high definition programming. Offering far more HD stations than its two huge competitors, DirecTV and Dish Network, Voom appeared with lots of flourish in 2003. But it was far from a runaway success.

    At first, standard definition offerings on the service were slim, and this was unfortunate, because it made Voom a less compelling option. The prime reason is that the vast majority of available stations have yet to upgrade to the higher resolution technology. So it’s like having half a loaf, and probably a whole lot less. So if you wanted to watch the programs on some of those other stations, you had to subscribe to both Voom and a second service, possibly a basic cable account. Not a very cost effective deal.

    While the technology press gave kudos to Voom, early customer feedback left a lot to be desired, with reports of service problems of one sort or another. You don’t build a service like this overnight, but it appeared the parent company, New York’s Cablevision, was in it for the long haul. Over time, more standard definition stations came onboard, with the promise of lots more this coming spring. There was also the promise of more advanced receivers, including a full-featured HD DVR, just like DirecTV and Dish offered.

    But time ran out quickly for Voom. Cablevision’s founder, Charles F. Dolan, lost a boardroom squabble with his son, James L. Dolan, on the future of the fledgling service. In the wake of this family argument, Cablevision agreed to sell Voom’s satellite, named Rainbow 1, to EchoStar Communications Corporation, Dish’s parent company. The $200 million price tag may seem a bit much, but it’s less than launching a testing a new satellite, and Dish sorely needs the extra bandwidth to expand its high definition offerings.

    And what about Voom’s 26,000 subscribers? Well, they will continue to get service for the time being, but the handwriting is on the wall, and I expect they’ll be given the opportunity to switchover to Dish, perhaps with free installation of the required new equipment.

    The transaction still has to be approved by the FCC and other regulatory agencies, and, for now, Dish spokespeople tell The Tech Night Owl that they are still considering what they will do with their new purchase. But it’s clear to me that the choices are obvious. By fall, if everything goes as planned, Dish subscribers will see a whole lot more high definition offerings. I have hopes for local stations, so I can safely disconnect that antenna for good.

    While it’s sad to see fewer choices for TV viewers, it’s no doubt true that Voom didn’t have enough time to differentiate itself from the competition. As more and more HD programming appears on DirecTV and Dish, Voom’s window of opportunity would have quickly vanished before it could get a big foothold on the market. No doubt the powers-that-be at Cablevision realized that too, and decided to act now to cut their losses.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Mac 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 and Marketing: Sharon Jarvis



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