• Newsletter Issue #279

    April 4th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S MAC NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    All right, so maybe Grayson and I are lazy. But there were many reasons to take the night off on March 31st. For one thing, Grayson was inundated with school assignments, and the family obligations overwhelmed me. So we decided it was a good time to deliver a “Best of” episode, from February of this year. The featured guests included author John Rizzo, Macworld’s Dan Frakes, an Eric Roccasecca, lead developer for QuicKeys.

    We are hard at work developing on all new show for April 7th, and you’ll learn the particulars in just a few days. Other changes are afoot for our program, including a possible name change. Would any of you object if we used the word “Tech” in the title, to better reflect the wide range of subject matter? I’m curious to gauge reader reaction on this, so don’t be shy about speaking up.

    Oh yes, in case you haven’t heard, contests are back, and we’ve been running them pretty regularly in recent weeks. But stay tuned. The best is yet to come. Beginning later this month, we’ll be giving away iPod shuffles.

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

    SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT THE FIFTH YEAR OF MAC OS X

    Boy, how time flies! Mac OS X first became real to me back in August 2000, as I met a representative from Apple and was given an early peek at the Public Beta version. Of course I had to sign a confidentiality agreement first, affirming that I wouldn’t publish anything about it until its September release date.

    Not that there was much to talk about. Yes, after long delays, Apple’s next generation operating system (there’s a pun there!) was real, but that was about it. It was slow, as slow as System 7.0 on a Mac Classic. It was also bereft of such features as a working Apple menu. Instead, the Apple logo was lodged in the middle of the menu bar, an unmoving, useless reminder that a lot of work needed to be done to deliverable a usable product.

    When Steve Jobs unveiled Mac OS X 10.0 to the press during a special session at Apple headquarters in March 2001, the truth emerged. It was all a bait and switch game. This official release was the real beta version, only suitable for early adopters and system administrators who wanted to see what the fuss was all about.

    Well, at least it had a working Apple menu, though rather different from the on we were used to. But it really wasn’t all that much faster than the Public Beta. Oh well. And aside from writing books about Mac OS X, I stuck with Mac OS 9 when it came time to do real work, rather than just sit back and gaze at the eye candy.

    But you can’t imagine the fuss raised about the Dock. What about a proper application menu on the right end of the menu bar? All right, third party developers were able to provide that alternative, but while you could hide the Dock except for mouseovers, or make it real small, there was no official way to dispense with it entirely.

    The real official release was labeled 10.1 and it arrived by September, a month ahead of Windows XP. That had to be deliberate. At least it was a free upgrade, if you picked up the updater CD from a dealer. If you wanted Apple to mail you a copy, you had to pay $19.95 shipping and handling. We take that price for granted today, but you can’t imagine the fuss some of you raised way back then. Apple was just gouging Mac users. How dare they charge anything for a working version of Mac OS X after you shelled out $129 for a product that was barely usable?

    The fuss died down and, despite being ragged on the edges, 10.1 was good enough at the time, and it became possible for many of you to work full time in Mac OS X. That is, if you could find enough software, but the arrival of a native version of Microsoft Office for Mac OS X a couple of months later gave the new operating system credibility.

    The following year, I recall Steve Jobs unveiling the latest and greatest, Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, at a Macworld keynote. I winced when he kept referring to it as “Jag-wire,” because I felt Steve was above falling for this awkward regional pronunciation. Well, at least you couldn’t confuse it with that temperamental automobile of the same name. Jaguar made it clear that Apple had hit its stride, and that system updates would come fast and furious. Released in August 2002, 10.2 was faster, an anomaly, because I had come to believe that system upgrades were supposed to be slower. It even delivered acceptable performance on a first generation iMac; if you lowered your expectations of what amounted to acceptable that is.

    But now the floodgates were open and more and more applications were available in Mac OS X trim. Yes, I was close to leaving Classic altogether, and Apple signaled the true abandonment of Mac OS 9 when it announced that its new computers would boot by default under Mac OS X as of the first part of 2003.

    By October of 2003, Panther sprung, and it was a downright sprightly beast. All right, the development pace had slowed down a bit, since it came out 14 months after Jaguar. Again, it was faster, more feature laden, and I noticed that the interface was smoothing out, with window title bars displaying more and more of a grayish look. No, it didn’t reflect the aging of the members of Apple’s executive suite. It was a practical decision to deliver a more subtle, refined look. If you still found it too garish, you could find solace in the fact that Apple retained Graphite as an appearance option. When you switched, you may have felt gray scrollbars were a bit more pleasing, especially if you wanted your operating system to stay out of the way, but the cartoonish effect of the Dock was retained in all its glory.

    Panther, however, didn’t seem quite as stable as Jaguar. Within days after its official release, the dreadful news arrived that 10.3 might be dangerous to a FireWire drive’s health. Some drives suddenly failed to mount, and, short of a trip to the clean rooms in a recovery plant, the prospects of getting your data back were slim. Drive vendors quickly released firmware updates to keep the drives, the ones that employed hardware from Oxford Semiconductor, from succumbing to this ailment. It was strange, though, to learn that the firmware was actually available to vendors weeks earlier, but nobody noticed until havoc ensued. Apple also got a 10.3.1 update out real quick to repair its share of the problem.

    Right now, Panther is, as most of you know, at 10.3.8, and there are rumors of a 10.3.9 in the wings. That’s a lot of updating and you can’t help but feel it was rushed to market, and should have simmered in the development labs a few months longer.

    As the Tiger era approaches, I can only hope Apple has learned its lesson, and that we won’t have to hope for the prompt arrival of a 10.4.2 or 10.4.3 to archive the proper degree of stability. For now, we’ll just have to wait and see and try not to reveal our jaundiced eyes.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: OUR LOVE IT/HATE IT RELATIONSHIP WITH CELL PHONES

    Just the other day, a local realtor told me he owned three mobile phones from three services, because no single service worked in all the areas he had to visit in his travels with clients. Think about it for a moment, and imagine if you had to do that. What number would you give your friends or business associates? Sounds like one big mess to me.

    But I can see his point. You see, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal said that cell phone providers get more complaints than most any other telecommunications service. In fact, 60% of the mobile phone users in the U.S. report dropped calls, but the actual rate of official complaints is a lot less. The official tally is 4.6 complaints per 100,000 customers for the worst offender, Cingular Wireless. Clearly it’s having growing pains assimilating its network with that of AT&T Wireless in the wake of the merger between the two services.

    Now the presence of the extraordinarily beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones certainly gives T-Mobile plenty of class, but the truth is that is level of customer satisfaction is otherwise second best. The raw figures are 4.3 complaints per 100,000. Yes, it still doesn’t seem a whole lot in the scheme of things, but the complaints I’m talking about here are only the ones received by the Federal Communications Commission. It’s clearly a very small subset of the true level of dissatisfaction. How many of you really bother to go to the FCC, when you can just as well switch to another carrier? Well, at least when your contract expires.

    Next in line is Sprint, with a rate of 3.6 complaints per 100,000. I’m really surprised it’s that good. To my way of thinking, Sprint doesn’t know the meaning of customer service. Now maybe things are better now, but I do recall that when I was a Sprint user, just about every encounter I had with their support people nearly ended in a shouting match, and I’m not all that volatile in person. It’s just that I can only take so much abuse before I decide to fight back.

    In case you’re wondering, Nextel, with whom Sprint is in the process of merging, has a complaint rate of just 2.3. Maybe Sprint will learn a little something from the experience, but I’m not betting on it. Bigger isn’t always better, as the folks at Cingular no doubt realize.

    These days, I’m sticking with Verizon Wireless, which has a complaint rate of a mere 1.4 per 100,000. My own encounters with the company have been mostly favorable. The troublesome service call is the exception, rather than the rule.

    But cell phone service here in the states is not as good as it should be, far from it. Even with the best, and Verizon Wireless is definitely that, there are still far too many dropped calls and dead zones, where you can’t get a usable signal.

    Now why should this be, what with the billions these companies are spending to expand their networks? Well, it may well be that they are still adding customers faster than they can accommodate them. But another problem may be a lot more local in nature. In order to build new cell phone towers to handle the increased subscriber load, a provider has to get permission from the local zoning boards. In many jurisdictions, it may take months or years to wade through the bureaucratic red tape and convince the zoning people that they should grant a construction permit. After all, who wants those unsightly cell phone towers in their neighborhoods? Well, surely the folks who want better service.

    What to do? Well, your first line of action is, of course, the cell phone provider. Give their support line a call. Be civil, although it may be difficult, and report reception problems in a calm fashion, giving them as much information as possible as to symptoms and the precise locations where they occur. You see, the industry is highly competitive, and, even with a reduced number of providers, customer retention is of the utmost importance. If they receive a number of complaints about bad reception in a given area, they will probably try to do something to fix the problem. Alas, the fix might not come right away, and it may take weeks or months to resolve a persistent problem.

    In the end, it may also be the fault of the local authorities who won’t let those cell phone companies build new facilities. Don’t be afraid to tell your local government how you feel about the situation. If they are preventing you from getting good cell phone reception, speak up, and make your views known at the ballot box during the next election.

    Still, I fear it’ll be years before reception problems are history. But with more and more wireless technologies being developed, perhaps it’ll happen sooner rather than later.

    ABOUT OUR EDITOR

    Gene Steinberg is the best-selling author of over 30 computer and Internet books, and has also written articles for both national newspapers and the major Macintosh magazines. For a complete list of his current titles, point your browser to our Books page.

    FROM THE ROCKOID FILES

    If you’re a regular visitor to our “Attack of the Rockoids” Web site, you may have noticed changes are afoot. The second exciting novel in the Rockoids saga, “The Coming of the Protectors,” is in the hands of the editor now, and it will be published this fall.

    Here’s a summary of the plot of Book II: When Ray Perkins conceives of a far-fetched plan to return to the future and the woman he loves more than life itself, he finds himself pursued by government agents. His journey, however, is just getting started, for he arrives in a galaxy turned upside down, with millions of peace-loving beings threatened by terrible new enemies.

    Worse, these enemies are after Ray Perkins. Some want him dead; the rest want his soul. And that’s only the beginning. Check our site for a sample chapter of episode two of this exciting series, and get ready to continue the adventure of a lifetime.

    If you want to see where it all begin, check out the “Signature Edition” of the first book in the series. Our online store now has all the particulars. What’s more, part of the proceeds from the sale of the book will go directly to Grayson’s college education.

    We’ve gotten hundreds of letters in response to Rockoids. A typical reader writes, “This is a book that anyone can pick up and enjoy; it manages to maintain the same level of excitement and enjoyment throughout. I found it difficult to put down and I was disappointed when it ended. The book introduces characters that will make an impact on even the lightest of readers . . . I look forward to the sequels. Buy it. You won’t be disappointed.”

    A recent review also comes from Brenda Gill, writing for the Sime~Gen Web site, which is run by the authors of a popular science fiction series: “The father-son writing team of Gene and Grayson Steinberg have written a marvelous, fast paced story of interstellar warfare and star-crossed love. The battle scenes are so descriptive, you can see the space ships explode and be consumed by gigantic balls of flame. I enjoyed this story and the authors say there is more to come about the characters and the future world of the Rockoids. Fans of Star Wars and Star Trek will enjoy this story and look forward to many more adventures of Ray and Zanther.”

    Another review comes from Robert Simpson, a well-known science fiction editor who has worked on a variety of books over the years, including novels based on “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones.” He has given us many helpful suggestions about the story in recent months, and finally sent us this comment:

    “Though filled with scenes of action, heroism, intergalactic political intrigue and high drama, the soul of ‘Attack of the Rockoids’ lies in its heart and passion for building a convincing tale of a love that spans the galaxy. A thrilling story!”

    Folks who have seen such flicks as “Frequency,” the cult fantasy classic “Somewhere in Time,” and even the “X-Files,” might feel the very same connection when they probe the core meaning of the Rockoids saga.

    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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