• Newsletter Issue #296

    August 1st, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    We made a last-minute decision to take the night off last week. So sue us. Instead, we presented a special “Best of” episode originally broadcast on May 26th. Featured guests included Apple Computer’s Wiley Hodges, who delivered some great Mac OS X Tiger tips. The guest list also included author Matt Neuburg and pay a thought-provoking trip to the “The David Biedny Zone.”

    But we’ve been real busy lining up guests for future programs, and we have a great lineup for August and September and beyond. In the meantime, we’ve had lots of response to our recent conversion of our archives to Podcast form. Even if you prefer to listen to the live broadcast, you may want to consider the alternative, which allows you to download your favorite episodes of The Tech Night Owl LIVE direct to your iPod.

    As to our August 4th episode, you’ll hear from eWeek columnist David Coursey, who has been favorably impressed by the first beta of the newly minted Windows Vista. Also on the guest list is our old friend Christopher Breen from Macworld and PlayList Magazine, and a representative from Crucial Technology, who will speak about choosing the right memory upgrade for your Mac. We’ll also talk with Bob Yakushi from Nissan North America, who will describe the computerized safety systems being offered in the company’s latest vehicles, such as the lane departure warning system.

    And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, memory upgrades, network music players, software and books. More great prizes will be offered in the weeks to come.

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

    HP AND THE IPOD: DOES ANYONE CARE?

    The great experiment is over. HP has decided that reselling iPods no longer fits within its strategic vision. When the announcement first came at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2004, it emerged out of left field. Of all the things one expected Apple to do in order to boost sales for the iPod, cutting a deal with HP to market the product would have been last on the list.

    But when former HP CEO Carly Fiorina held up an iPod (or HPod) for all to see, even the Mac rumor sites were flummoxed. At first, it was believed that Apple would deliver iPods in “HP Blue,” but, in the end, they just sold the same product with a different label on the box, and strictly Windows software inside.

    The logic, at the time, was that HP, by virtue of having far more dealers than Apple, would be able to extend the product’s reach big time. It was also an admission that HP would not be able to surpass the iPod’s allure, so it might as well get on the bandwagon and take a little of the profit for itself.

    Considering that HP never sold more than a small percentage of its rebranded Apple iPods, I never expected that highly publicized deal to last. Sure, there were rumors that HP wasn’t pleased with Apple’s financial arrangements, but the real issue is whether it made any sense to resell a competitor’s product and that’s the issue that, perhaps more than any other, influenced the decision to cut the cord.

    So what does all this mean? Probably not a great deal in the scheme of things, except to HP’s bottom line. For one thing, HP is apparently prevented by its contract with Apple to deliver its own digital music player until this time next year, which doesn’t provide much incentive to get into that product arena. Besides, HP is doing pretty well with its digital cameras and photo printers. Entering a new business at this stage probably isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense.

    As far as Apple is concerned, it will probably just go direct to the dealers that sold the iPod by HP and deal with them directly. It has already expanded its relationship with Wal-Mart, the largest retail chain in the U.S. There are also published reports that a number of Radio Shack outlets are poised to begin to carry the iPod and perhaps other Apple products this fall. If true, that will add thousands of new dealers into the fold.

    In the end, HP’s presence as an iPod reseller and its decision to discontinue the product are both non-issues. The continued success of the iPod won’t be impacted in any meaningful way, simply because most customers probability couldn’t care less if HP’s name was on the product or not.

    In fact, it may even make sense for Apple to also sell the Mac mini through Radio Shack and Wal-Mart. Neither of these outlets are especially known for stellar customer service. They are places where you buy the boxes of merchandise that you need, although Radio Shack does seem to provide some degree of help when you’re ready to sign up for a cell phone provider. But if Apple wants to consider adding thousands of new outlets to its Mac dealer network, it has to also consider what to do about the monitor. You see, low cost PC systems tend to be sold as complete packages, not ala carte.

    But charging $799 for a monitor to accompany a $499 personal computer doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, not in stores where you can buy the complete outfit for less than $500. So what is Apple to do? Well, I have suggested for some time now that Apple produce a low-cost line of flat panel displays to accompany the mini. Imagine, for example, a 15-inch widescreen for $199 and the 17-inch version for, say, $399. That wouldn’t seem so out of place, particularly when compared to other all-digital display. Or perhaps bundle a somewhat less expensive version of its keyboard and mouse and deliver the full package for $699. That may seem a mite expensive, but it’s been shown with the iPod that customers are willing to pay extra for what they perceive to be a superior product.

    But just bundling everything in a single package isn’t sufficient. Apple would have to go the extra mile to help newcomers learn the ropes. Simple documentation, yes. Simple instructions on migrating from a Windows box, yes. But it may also be a great idea to provide a full instructional DVD, perhaps with an introduction from Steve Jobs himself. In fact, let Steve narrate the entire video, divided into easy-to-digest chunks that would guide everyone from the novice to the more experienced user into the empowerment of the Mac platform.

    In fact, why limit this to a special Mac mini bundle earmarked for Wal-Mart and Radio Shack? Apple has reportedly attracted hundreds of thousands of Windows users to the platform in recent months. Since people don’t read manuals these days, an instructional video of this sort ought to be bundled with every new Mac. There could, for example, even be a professional version for Power Macs in which Apple guides business users to understanding the differences between the Mac and Windows.

    And, bear in mind, an instructional video would cost a lot less to produce than the internal modem that has been removed from a number of desktop Macs.

    WEIRDO’S DELIGHT

    My daily roster of email exceeds 1,000 strong, although a fair amount of it is spam. However, I also get a substantial number of requested emails from various mailing lists I’ve joined, responses to this newsletter, the radio show and my daily commentaries. Most of it is polite, even if the respondent disagrees with something I’ve written. On a rare occasion during my online wanderings, I run across someone’s comment about something I’ve said, and sometimes the comment is downright rude. I usually find them strictly by accident, because the person behind the attacks apparently doesn’t want me to know about it for reasons that are usually obvious when I begin to read the material.

    That takes us to an article I wrote in early June, taking an online commentary as an example of someone assuming that the problems they have with their Macs must, therefore, apply to everyone. So Apple is blamed for the problems, not something peculiar to their particular installations. The original article mentioned five specific areas where I felt the author in question was far too eager to pass off his troubles to Apple’s doorstep.

    I heard nothing more, until a few weeks later, when I ran across the author’s response purely by accident. It was hidden in a personal blog. Unfortunately, that particular author seems to feel that people who disagree with him must also be guilty of Ad Hominem attacks, even though my article made it quite clear that he was not being attacked personally. He replied with his own brand of personal attacks, such as making a big deal about an innocent typo (long since corrected) and then complaining about my writing abilities as a result.

    I decided to probe and prod and see what kind of person would write such nonsense and it soon became clear that he was utterly incapable of engaging in any substantive discussion of the issues I raised. He asked me to reply by email, but hid his address behind a random photo, so it was not readily accessible. But when I did respond per his instructions, I got more of the same stuff, personal attacks, complaints, but very little about the issues themselves.

    Through the years, I’ve encountered people like this on Internet newsgroups, folks who cannot engage in responsible debate, and who feel personal attacks are the only way for them to reach out and touch someone.

    In the case of the author in question, he is just not worth any further attention on my part. Perhaps that’s all he wanted, some means to add the name of a popular author to his blog so he can increase his hit count. Whatever the reason, it’s sad that someone chooses to reside in such an insular world that anyone who tries to knock on the door with a dose of logic and reason must be rebuffed.

    Of course, I’m not going to stop making comments about specific articles with which I disagree, even if those comments do inspire a few people to go off the deep end.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: THE CELL PHONE MENAGERIE

    If you can believe the ads, you need to ditch your present mobile phone provider and sign up for a new two-year deal so you can get some brand new camera phones for next to nothing. Although the number of players in the industry has begun to shrink because of the recent merger between AT&T Wireless and Cingular, and the in-progress merger between Nextel and Sprint, the competition seems more fierce than ever.

    Whether it’s beautiful Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones exhorting the joys of T-Mobile, to that anonymous Verizon Wireless technician wondering if you can hear him now, the offers become more and more tempting. However, the number of customers without existing plans continues to shrink, and if you want to switch, you have to be mindful of those dreadful early termination charges. But what if you’re late to the cell phone bandwagon, or are just fed up with your provider? How to you pick the one that’s best for you?

    First, it’s a good idea to be mindful of the limitations of the technology. With all the razzle-dazzle and fancy multimedia phones we have now, this is essentially a two-way radio system that’s far from perfect. Even if your carrier is rated best in your city, you will still encounter poor connections and dropped calls from time to time. Don’t expect your cell phone to operate reliably in an elevator, or even inside a tall building with thick walls. Drive under a commuter tunnel and keep your fingers crossed, hoping there are repeaters to keep the signal going. What’s more, no matter what you spend on the latest mobile phone with music, downloadable TV clips and all that rest, don’t expect to have it last more than a year or two before it needs to be replaced. It may just be the battery that’s no longer holding a full charge, but replacements may cost near as much as a newly minted phone with similar features; that is, assuming you’re willing to sign up for a new contract. Once they rope you in, they want to keep you onboard as long as possible.

    So knowing that it’s an imperfect system, is it worth switching? That depends. If you cannot get a reliable connection in the regions where you travel, and if customer support is a failed promise, you should definitely consider the alternatives. But how do you separate the claims from the reality? Well, one way is just to ask your friends and business contacts about their experiences with their wireless provider. It may even be a nice idea to drive them around town, to the places you visit, and try their phone out for size. Are you getting good reception, or is it no better than what you have?

    When it comes to service quality and support, surveys from Consumer Reports and elsewhere show Verizon Wireless, the number two carrier, at the top of the heap and Cingular, now number one, at the bottom. The rest of the carriers lie between those extremes. Alas, the carrier that rates best may not have the phone you crave, so you have to compromise. For now, the ultra-slim, sleek Motorola Razr V3 is only offered by Cingular and T-Mobile.

    When switching carriers, you also need to consider the fate of your present phone. The handsets used by Cingular and T-Mobile use the same technology, known as GSM. Their phones generally come with personality or SIM cards, which makes it simple to use the same phone when you switch from one carrier to the other. Just change the card. Although both Verizon and Sprint employ CDMA technology, reprogramming the phones to support a new carrier is not officially supported, although some claim to be able to hack the phones to allow you to switch carriers without buying new equipment.

    In the end, when you switch carriers, expect to switch equipment at the same time. In addition, when picking a new phone, consider whether you require analog capability. Though a dying technology, it’s still required to get service in some outlying areas of the U.S.

    When it comes to pricing and contracts, each carrier offers a different deal. Verizon and T-Mobile provide flat allotments of minutes per month. You don’t use them, you still pay, and if you exceed the allotment, you pay a high per-minute rate for the privilege. Sprint has a more flexible and sensible rate plan, where you buy a minimum number of minutes each month, and still pay a discounted rate if you exceed that figure. Cingular’s variation is “Rollover Minutes,” where your unused airtime is added to the following month’s allotment, up to a maximum of 12 months.

    Then there are roaming minutes, where you pay through the nose if you dare to place a call outside of the carrier’s network. Even so-called “national” plans may not be national, and some rural areas may not be covered by your wireless carrier. So you’ll want to consult their coverage map if you travel frequently outside of your local calling area.

    Sometimes the calling plans are so convoluted, you may feel you need an attorney’s advice to sort things out. But the most important factor is the money-back guarantee, which ranges from 15 to 30 days depending on the carrier. If you’re not satisfied, you can cancel during that period and just pay for the calls you made. Although it costs extra, it may also make sense to allow for an overlap period between the end of your current service and the beginning of the new one. This way, if you find that the switchover was a mistake, you can go back to your existing service without having to enter into a brand new contract.

    One more thing: Carriers have “retention” departments, where they might strike a special deal with credits for existing service and discounts on new equipment if you threaten to leave. This may be a last resort if you’re not sure if a new service will be any better than the old one. You’ll also want to pay attention to new rate plans, because prices continue to edge down, and most carriers will let you switch without penalty, although you may have to agree to a new contract to become eligible for lower prices.

    As far as I’m concerned, I’m sticking with Verizon Wireless for now. Even though it doesn’t always have the latest and greatest when it comes to new phones, the quality of service and support still exceeds the rest of the carriers here in the U.S.

    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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