• Newsletter Issue #270

    January 31st, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S MAC NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    We are on the march. That’s for sure. The Mac Night Owl LIVE is getting more and more responses from new listeners, and the audience is growing by leaps and bounds. In the future, you can expect to learn about new contests, surprise guests and a new “review” segment. Please tell your friends.

    The January 27th episode featured Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, Christopher Breen and Bill Fox, editor and publisher of Macs Only. Bob and Christopher devoted a lot of attention to both the iPod shuffle and the Mac mini. In addition, Dr. Mac also gave us the scoop on his new support service, Doctor Mac Direct, which is set for its debut shortly. Bill, a newcomer to our show, gave us some insights into his recent tests of Apple’s cute little “starter” computer.

    For February 3rd, we’ll be introducing Dan Frakes from Macworld and PlayList magazines. We’ll also have that discussion about QuicKeys X3, which was postponed from last week’s show because we ran out of time.

    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.

    APPLE AT THE CROSSROADS

    I’m sure some of you believe that much of Apple’s present success is largely due to smart planning, that the folks in Cupertino knew the iPod would be a smashing success, and that a cheap Mac must surely follow to build market share. Wouldn’t it be nice to believe that? But I prefer to think a lot of what has happened can be traced to fortunate accidents. Whether the fates or just a matter of timing, the iPod, for example, would never have taken off as it has if it were released much earlier. The market wasn’t quite ready for it.

    The Mac mini? Well, don’t forget Apple’s previous foray into a supposedly no-frills computer, the Cube. Of course Apple erred by making the Cube too expensive, and early production defects and a silly design choice, the proximity-based power switch, also helped to put the nail in the coffin. But I suppose you could say Apple just kept plugging away until they got it right, and the mini sometimes strikes me as basically one-quarter of a Cube with a price to match.

    You might want to suggest that the mini should have been produced years ago. Maybe so, but other factors converged to give it a greater shot at success in 2005. It’s not just the iPod, but the growing disgust with the spyware, viruses and other ills that have affected the Windows platform. If the mini came out a few years ago, before Apple’s products had received so much attention acclaim, it may have sold well enough, but it probably would not have realized its potential. In fact, I tend to believe that those statements from Apple executives dismissing the prospects for a cheap Mac were probably sincere, at least at the beginning.

    The history of any successful company usually involves successes and failures. Through the years, Apple has made some very big mistakes. The original Mac, in fact, wasn’t altogether successful, and it probably took such developments as the combination of laser printers and PageMaker to make it the ideal tool for the desktop publishing revolution. Being embraced by content creators helped keep the product afloat, although at times you felt the patient was just existing on life support.

    Just because you build a better mousetrap doesn’t guarantee success. Microsoft didn’t gain its dominance of the operating system market by building better products, but that’s another story. But now that Apple has conquered the digital music market, can it also conquer the PC business with anything near the same level of success? The experts say no. Wintel boxes are just too entrenched in the business world to allow it, at least for the foreseeable future. In fact, if the situation changes at all, it would be the result of some major breakthrough in computing technology, and nobody knows whether that would come from Apple.

    Then again, it’s not that Apple always invents the technology; it often finds a better way to package and sell it. Or it has in recent years. But continued success will require not just long-range planning, but a lot of luck. I once asked Apple VP Phil Schiller whether they had a picture of what the PC might be look five years later, and his response was cagey at best. Ever the proper salesman, Schiller kept turning the discussion to hot products of the time.

    Of course, Apple won’t give you even a five-month plan, with perhaps the exception of Tiger. Talking about future products is not part of its DNA. More important, I wonder just how far its product planning extends into the future. In the technology business, things change so quickly, just keeping up is one huge chore. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a potential 2010 Mac sitting in a test laboratory somewhere, but you’ll never see it at a trade show. Apple doesn’t want its competition to get any bright ideas.

    On the other hand, Apple no doubt has contingency plans afoot on how to deal with the end of the iPod fad. It may not happen this year, or next, but the fickle public will eventually settle on something else as a pop culture icon. Will it will be a successor to the iPod or something from another company is anyone’s guess. My crystal ball isn’t that sensitive and Apple’s isn’t either. At best, there are sets of “what if” scenarios.

    The release of both the iPod shuffle and the Mac mini clearly result from a decision to strike while the iron’s hot. Apple owns the hard drive-based music player market, so why not dominate the Flash player arena too? You can see that attitude in the way Steve Jobs unveiled the product at his recent Macworld Expo keynote. Since the iPod opened the door to the Windows market, perhaps a sub-$500 Mac would garner a level of sales it would never have achieved a year or two ago. It might even be profitable.

    The real indicator of the success of the Mac mini is staying power. Just like the Cube and the previous generation iMac, there are lots of preorders to fill. But what will happen after production meets demand? For the iPod, sales just kept going up and up. Will the mini achieve anywhere near that level of success?

    I’d like to believe it will, and that market share will rise far more rapidly than anyone has the right to expect. At the same time, it’s clear that Apple has to be able to spin on a dime and move fast in response to changing market conditions.

    Will 2005 mark a new beginning for Apple and the beginning of the end for Microsoft as the dominant player in the industry? Now maybe that’s pushing things a little too far, but stranger things have happened. Ask me again next year.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: CONSUMER REPORTS AND REAR-PROJECTION TV

    I’ve spent so much time complaining about how Consumer Reports magazine treats Macs that I haven’t devoted much attention to the rest of the magazine. That’s about to change. Before I get to the meat of this article, let me sum it up first by saying that the biggest problem is that, in an effort to avoid technical jargon, CR dumbs down its articles to the point where critical information is lacking.

    The latest example comes from the February 2005 issue, in a review of rear-projection TVs. On the surface it appears they are giving useful information, but there’s just not enough useful information to tell you how to select a new high definition TV and set it up to deliver the best possible picture.

    For example, Consumer Reports explains that “It’s harder to find top picture quality in rear-projection TVs than in plasma sets, so be choosy.” That’s all right, as far as it goes. But since there is no direct comparison with a top quality plasma set, you don’t have much to go on, unless you dig out some back issues. The other question, of course, is why. Part of the reason is the inferior viewing angle of a rear-projection set. Just look at one from a sharp angle, and it’s most obvious when you’re up real close. They are also best viewed from six or more feet away, and the ideal distance depends on the size of the picture. Of course, the anonymous writers from CR don’t tell us that.

    The article briefly mentions the four basic technologies used in rear-projection models. The cheapest, of course, is CRT. The all-digital method, using chips to generate the images, are collectively known as microdisplay, and the technologies mentioned are LCD, DLP and LCoS. You are familiar with LCD, of course. DLP, short for Digital Light Processing, comes from the labs of Texas Instruments. Though capable of excellent pictures, the single-chip DLPs used in these sets can, for various reasons, cause a sort of rainbow effect, which may appear briefly as your eye switches focus from one part of the screen to another. The condition is less obvious in sets using the latest generation DLP hardware, and most people never see it. I saw it exactly once, at a store, but couldn’t consciously recreate the experience. Of course CR doesn’t mention any of this in the current review, although an article in a previous issue briefly mentioned this phenomenon.

    LCoS, short for Liquid Crystal on Silicon, uses a technique that is said to employ the best of LCD and DLP. Unfortunately, it’s proven difficult to perfect in the real world. There may be others, but the only LCoS-style sets I know of are made by JVC, which calls their variation D-ILA. JVC’s scheme supposedly doesn’t use organic compounds in its chips, which allegedly provides a longer useful life. In the CR article, the JVC sets with D-ILA were confined to the bottom half of the ratings. So it’s apparent that this technology may need more development before it can realize its potential. In fact, JVD seems to be the only company that has managed to make it work. Other companies, including Intel, tried but threw in the towel early on.

    Among rear-projection models, the microdisplay sets, regardless of technology, generally deliver the brightest and sharpest pictures. CRT has the advantage of superior color rendition, but the gap has lessened considerably and you may not even notice the difference. Too bad CR ignores all these distinctions.

    There’s also one more omission: CR points out that most microdisplay models are tabletop, which means you have to buy a base. That’s true, of course, but two of the top-rated models, The Samsung HL-P5085W and HL-P5685W, are built on a circular pedestal with a glass base. The components can’t be separated, because much of the critical electronics of these sets are located in that pedestal. It also seems strange that the latter, the 56-inch version, is rated somewhat inferior to the 50-inch version. Other than picture size, they are identical. Curious.

    What’s also curious is that CR doesn’t tell us whether they made any attempt to do a professional grade calibration of these sets before evaluating picture quality. Such calibration requires sophisticated and expensive test gear, but it would allow you to get the best possible picture. Lacking this information, I suppose you could assume the sets were evaluated based on the factory settings, which are apt to vary from sample to sample. Moreover, just about all of these sets offer several picture quality settings, optimized for different kinds of viewing, such as Cinema for film-based programming. Which ones did CR use? Nobody knows, and the article fails to tell the reader how to adjust those expensive new rear-projection TV for the best possible picture quality and how to view the sets in their own homes. The best solution to the latter, of course, is to turn down the lights. As far as the former is concerned, I suppose there’s always the manual, but they seldom helpful.

    It would also be nice if CR would explain the differences between its various ratings, which are listed in such general terms as Excellent, Very Good, and so on. What criteria are they employing, and what factors cause a set to be downgraded? At least when it comes to cars, CR has, in recent years, included actual test figures so you can see for yourself how they arrived at their ratings.

    Maybe CR feels that rear-projection TVs don’t require that amount of detail, but when you pay as much as $8,500 or more for one of these sets, I think you deserve as much information as you can get.

    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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