• Newsletter Issue #274

    February 28th, 2005


    They say the show must go on, but sometimes it can get a little difficult. Let me explain: About a week ago, I contracted a viral infection, probably flu-related, although I did receive a flu shot last fall, just before they ran out of the vaccine. In any case, as I began to get better, all of a sudden I felt a painful sensation on the right side of my tongue when I tried to speak. It seems I also developed a blister on the tongue, and you can imagine that eating solid food also presented a chore. I won’t get any more graphic, nor will I attempt to describe the concoction of several medicines my doctor cooked up to deal with this problem.

    In any case, I tried desperately to keep my tongue from moving in the wrong direction, as it were, and still sound reasonably clear during our February 24th show. I suppose I did all right, although I’m sure I was a little off my game. In any case, we had three great guests for the program, and they were able to hold their own without much prodding on my part.

    We featured an extensive chat with Lawrence Chen, author of Take Control of Buying a Digital Camera. In addition, Scott Gulbransen, Manager of Corporate Corporations from Intuit, told us about the latest version of TurboTax and confessed that he had just become a genuine Mac switcher. Steve Cotter from Altec Lansing joined us to explain how to choose the best loudspeaker for your Mac.

    This week, I’m just going to stay quiet as much as possible during the healing process, and you’ll hear a “Best of” show from our recent archives. The next brand new episode will be broadcast on March 10th, and Grayson and I are already working to round up some great guests.

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


    In an ideal world, the Mac mini is a compelling argument for disgusted Windows users to switch to the Mac. It’s cheap enough to be an almost casual purchase, and it will allow those folks to repurpose their existing displays and input devices. Imagine, for example, a Dell display with Mac OS X and Apple’s wonderful digital life applications on the screen? A dream come true, right?

    In these early days of the mini’s existence, sales seem to have gone through the roof, and Apple continues to struggle to keep up with demand. Those perfectly awful TV commercials from Dell, which are supposed to be funny in some inane way, may even inspire viewers to look for a better way. And the virus infection or security leak of the week doesn’t hurt.

    Yes, everything looks real positive. Just the other day, in fact, I was interviewing Scott Gulbransen, Intuit’s Manager of Corporate Communications, on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, when he revealed he had just purchased his first Mac, a mini. It became part of his home network, shared with his existing Wintel boxes. In short order, he found himself using the Mac almost full time, hardly touching his other computers. He even felt that it ran Intuit’s software, particularly the latest version of TurboTax, faster than the Windows version. And that’s just one example of the typical Mac switcher who sets the PC box universe aside.

    But is there trouble in paradise?

    The Mac mini will succeed best if it attracts a hefty number of Windows users to the platform, and inspires Mac users to upgrade faster than they would have otherwise. I’m sure Apple is banking on this, hoping that the incredible success of the iPod keeps making its technology look more and more attractive.

    But there may be a downside to all this joy. Consider, for example, a situation where a typical Mac user is looking for a low-priced computer to replace an older model. Before the Mac mini, that Mac user might have picked the eMac or an iMac G5 as an ideal replacement for a home or small office computer. Now, suddenly, the choices have expanded, and maybe they don’t have to spend so much.

    Of course, getting a mini works best if you have an existing monitor, keyboard and mouse. That way, the only extra you might need at the start is a memory upgrade. So the mini remains pretty cheap. But what if you don’t have any of these components around? The price begins to add up, as you consider the cost of all three you begin to approach that of the eMac, but if you shop around and stay with the cheapest stuff, you can get by for less than $100 over the price of the mini.

    So your abandon your plans to buy an eMac or an iMac G5. The mini is ideal for now, and you can put the extra money to other uses, such as paying bills or taking the family out to a fancy restaurant a little more frequently. Maybe you’ll upgrade to a better monitor later or maybe not. It’s not that Apple loses a sale, but, even if the profit margins are the same, the $799 eMac or $1,299 iMac G5 put a lot more money in the till.

    All things being equal, Apple would have to sell maybe two minis for each eMac sale lost, and three for every iMac G5 sale lost. They main gain in the total number of units sold, but not necessarily increase revenue. I gather Apple’s assumption here is that most Mac mini buyers don’t have an iMac or Power Mac on their radar for now. Even if they considered a mini with a flat panel display, the price would come close to the iMac, but the latter offers a lot more performance in almost every respect, and is thus a better value.

    But there are things that Apple can do to get extra dollars from mini owners, aside from selling extra memory and wireless networking hardware. Displays for example. Right now, the cheapest model is the $999 20-inch Cinema Display; the 17-inch model is no longer available, except perhaps in the closeout rack at a dealer. A big LCD display is not a casual purchase for consumers. What if you want something cheaper? Well, Apple doesn’t get that sale, at least for now, since it has to go to a third party product.

    In writing about low-cost Macs in the past couple of years, I’ve suggested that Apple introduce a line of matching displays. Obviously, you can’t match a tiny box, except, perhaps, in color scheme. In any case, how about a 17-inch widescreen LCD display for, say, $499, along with maybe even a 15-inch version for $299? A lot of folks who can’t buy or don’t need 20 inches will lap these up, assuming they deliver comparable performance. Apple might even sell a bunch to Windows users who want something stylish to enhance the look of their ugly PC boxes.

    In short, while folks who might have purchased an eMac or iMac might choose the mini instead, it may not be a serious loss. And Apple could use the opportunity to its advantage a sell that customer a Mac mini display.

    Now this entire idea might be “deluded,” as some have suggested. Then again, I think I had a good idea when I wrote about a cheap Mac, although Apple no doubt was considering it long before I made the suggestion. Now how about going the extra mile?


    My first car, a beat up old Chevrolet, had a manual transmission and manual steering. Despite those apparent shortcomings, I did not feel I suffered from the experience of driving that vehicle. In fact, it was rather enjoyable, as I was mastering a new skill. For the next 10 years, with one notable exception, I continued to avoid power accessories, but finally succumbed to the convenience of an automatic transmission for urban driving. The car in question, a bright blue Buick, had a white vinyl roof and seats to match. It also had power steering, an air conditioner, and an AM/FM radio. I felt I was I was living in the lap of luxury.

    Today, such a vehicle would be regarded as unsafe, because it lacked such essentials as ABS brakes, traction control, air bags and all the rest of the devices that are designed to protect us from ourselves. Still, driving an automobile, a skill most anyone can learn with a little practice, can be fraught with danger. We mourn the deaths of near 1,500 American soldiers in Iraq, but did you realize the number of fatalities in the U.S. as a result of auto accidents routinely exceeds 40,000 per year? And remember, that’s just one country.

    So despite all the achievements in making cars safer, it’s clear a lot more needs to be done to reduce the death toll. In fact, some of today’s luxury cars provide some compelling and imaginative tools to help reduce the possibility of accidents. Just the other day, for example, I was examining the safety features of the 2006 Infiniti M35, a luxury vehicle that costs over $40,000, and discovered its optional RearView Monitor feature, which displays the area behind the vehicle on the dash-mounted LCD display. Another option for that car, Intelligent Cruise Control, will sense the distance of the cars ahead of you and slow the car accordingly to maintain a safe distance. A third feature, called Lane Departure Warning, does what the name implies. If your car accidentally drifts out of the lane, there’s an audible warning, rather an irritating one in fact (although I gather it can be turned off).

    The recently introduced 2005 Acura RL, which tips the scales at nearly $50,000, is the top-of-the-line for Honda’s luxury brand, and it features something known as Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (or SH-AWD for short). According to Acura, SH-AWD “distributes torque between the front and rear wheels and can send up to 100% of the rear-wheel torque to either the left or right rear wheel.” In the real world, it makes it a lot more difficult for you to lose control of your vehicle if you go too fast around a curve, even in wet weather conditions. By the way, it also features a navigation system that provides real time traffic information in 20 major cities, courtesy of the folks at XM Radio.

    Understand that we’re talking about cars priced way beyond the budget of most families, but, over time, features such as these will gradually filter down to cheaper models. And they are only the beginning in the quest to make cars safer than ever. In fact, I don’t think too many years will elapse before you will be able to, in effect, set your destination, put your car on automatic pilot, and have it take you there in the most efficient way possible, in absolute safety. You won’t have to touch a thing, so you’d be able to sit back, take a nap, catch up on work, or just watch the scenery flashing by.

    Yes, those terrible fatality figures may go way down in the process. And that’s good, although we will all end up paying extra for the cars that offer all these marvelous safety features. But the car magazine writers who review today’s cars are quick to point out that good drivers who want to enjoy the superb steering response and handling the best cars can deliver have to turn off those electronic gizmos first. Some of them suggest that driving is no longer fun, because those elaborate computerized contraptions always get in the way.

    But those who regard cars as just a convenient way to get from to there in relative safety will appreciate the ongoing efforts to save us from our shortcomings. I also like to believe that driving can be both fun and safe at the same time. Am I wrong?


    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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