• Newsletter Issue #306

    October 10th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    October 18th. Now, unless it’s your birthday, a friend or family member’s birthday, or an anniversary, maybe that date doesn’t mean an awful lot to you. But it means a lot to us, since it’s the anniversary of the show, the third in fact. The Tech Night Owl LIVE had a modest enough beginning, and I’m not at all sure we had all that many listeners back in 2002, and we certainly had lots of technical glitches. It had been years since I worked in the broadcasting business, and the muscles needed lots of exercise.

    It took a while for things to “click” and to hit our stride, but I think we’ve gotten a whole lot better at it. Now that Podcasting has given you the ability to take your favorite episodes with you on your iPod, the show’s audience has grown tremendously. We can see that in mail and sponsor interest.

    Our October 6th episode included a long and wide ranging conversation with Bob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus. We got an update on the new features over at versiontracker.com, and we made another visit to the “David Biedny Zone.” This time David had lots to say about why the music companies don’t deserve more money for their product, and why Microsoft fears Google.

    On October 13th, we’ll be joined by a stellar cast that includes Rob Pegoraro, Consumer Technology Editor for The Washington Post, eWeek columnist David Coursey, Macworld’s Christopher Breen and industry analyst Joe Wilcox. You’ll hear updates on Apple’s new product announcements, its quarterly financials and lots more.

    We’re moving rapidly on setting up that second radio show, one having nothing to do with technology, by the way. Stay tuned for more details.

    And don’t forget our weekly contests. So far we’ve given away such prizes as iPod shuffles, iPod accessories, 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.

    CONSUMER REPORTS AND MACS: CLUELESS AGAIN

    Yes, it’s perfectly true that Consumer Reports magazine has given Macs high marks in its product reviews, and reader surveys show the best reliability ratings in the industry. So why do I call the magazine “clueless”? Why indeed!

    Consider this, for example: Did you know that 20% of Mac users have encountered computer viruses in the past two years? How about eight percent reporting spyware infections? Sounds absurd. Read on.

    Now why should I be attacking a publication who actually seems to give Macs a fair shake? Well, if Macs really got proper treatment in that magazine, I wouldn’t be writing this column. But they don’t! It’s not a case of damning with faint praise either, but the fact that CR’s editors seem so busy dumbing down their content that they fail to explain key facts. One is the difference between the Mac OS and Windows, which is rarely discussed and then in very general terms with little useful information. Sure, the Mac is not nearly as vulnerable to security problems, but that is not the only reason to consider the platform. No, CR, the Mac isn’t just a prettier computer that you think may sometimes be more expensive.

    Now, in theory at least, CR should be fair minded about the subject. Rather than solicit review samples from manufacturers, it buys them at retail just as you and I might do. For better or worse, it gets the same products, and there’s no possibility of tampering to make something perform better. There is no advertising to exert pressure on editorial staffers. Of course in the real world, most magazines that provide reviews of consumer products make an attempt to separate the advertising and editorial departments, and, after reviewing products for such publications for years, I can tell you that I never got a ringer, a product somehow enhanced to garner a better rating. Not even close!

    But freedom from possible vendor pressure isn’t enough, apparently, to give CR’s editors a clue about personal computers. The ease of use factor, for one. The biggest concern of the average consumer of personal computers isn’t whether it is a tad faster or slower, but how easy it is to set up and use. Maybe CR doesn’t realize this, but you buy a computer to run applications, not to score well on benchmarks, although the latter is useful if you’re using software that will require top performance.

    Another problem, more immediate, is the potential for a security threat on Macs. The September 2005 reported what it claimed were the results of a “nationally representative survey of more than 3,200 household with at-home Internet access.” It sounds authoritative, but the results are questionable. Sure, the report that 66 percent of Windows users had viruses and 54 percent reported spyware makes sense. In fact, the figures are actually somewhat conservative compared to other surveys I’ve seen, particularly when it comes to spyware.

    But those statistics about Macs make no sense whatever. Spyware? What spyware? While it would be foolish to suggest that the Mac OS is vulnerable to malware, it would be interesting to contact some of these households and find out just what they consider to be spyware, since there aren’t any known cases of such a thing on this platform. However, it is true that several dozen computer viruses did infect the Classic Mac OS over the years, the most recent infection dates back to the late 1990s.

    The November 2005 issue of CR has a letter from a reader questioning those statistics. CR’s response shows they aren’t doing their homework. They insist the conclusions were based on “a nationally representative sample,” but don’t say how the sample was arrived at or how the survey was conducted. They do quote Symantec as saying it had “reported at least two pieces of malware affecting Mac OS X, including a viruses, that were discovered in the past 18 months.” Unfortunately, as is typical for CR’s editors, they don’t tell you the whole story, which is that these were, in fact, strictly proofs of concept, developed in laboratories.

    There is, in fact, no existing report, at least so far, of any Mac OS X virus infections in the real world. So why do 20% of the Mac users in that survey believe they were infected by viruses? One possibility is that they also had Windows computers at home or at the office that were infected, and the survey was not filled out correctly, or failed to properly account for such situations. Another is that some folks may think that, when their computers fail to function properly, it must be caused by a virus, even though that’s not the case. In addition, maybe they are confusing Spam or browser pop-ups with spyware.

    Unfortunately, CR, by addressing such issues in generalities, only muddies the situation. Had they done their research of what’s really happening in the Mac universe, they’d realize this survey is highly suspect. Despite claims of not being influenced by advertisers, in this case, the companies who make Mac virus protection software must be dancing in the streets over the sales they’ll make as a result of this erroneous information.

    As far as CR is concerned, it also becomes hard to accept the surveys that show positive ratings for Apple’s product reliability and customer service. Worse, CR’s inability or unwillingness to even consider the possibility that its survey of malware infections on personal computers is faulty puts its entire editorial reputation in a very questionable shape.

    In case you’re wondering, I plan to make an effort to talk sense to the magazine’s editorial staff. I will try to keep my pessimism in check.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: DO YOU REALLY WANT A HIGH DEFINITION DVD?

    When I bought my first VCR in the early 1980s, I had the choice of Beta or VHS. I choose the latter, because there were more rental choices at the local video store, even though some claimed that Beta had superior picture quality. Maybe it did, but the difference wasn’t sufficient to display much of an advantage on your typical 19-inch portable set.

    Over time the marketplace resolved the question for good. Beta was largely confined to the professional marketplace. But it was touch and go for a few years, and if you wanted to rent videos, you didn’t feel terribly pleased to be on the wrong side in the format war.

    Fortunately, the DVD, at least as far as videos were concerned, was a different story. The industry got together in a single basic format, as with CD. As a result, it was embraced faster than any new consumer electronic format that preceded it, and today Hollywood earns more money from DVD sales than from exhibition in movie theaters. As you know, the hardware is dirt cheap these days. Just $25 will get you a DVD player with all the bells and whistles, including progressive scan.

    As good as a DVD picture is, particularly when the transfer from the original movie is done well, it still doesn’t quite approach HDTV, especially when you have a large screen TV. The difference isn’t vast, but the devil’s in the details, and good HDTV shows a lot more. Now it is true that a good high definition set will upconvert a DVD’s picture to simulate a higher definition. Some higher priced DVD players include their own circuitry to accomplish a similar purpose, and that does minimize the HDTV advantage.

    But wouldn’t it be nice to have a true high definition DVD? Would you be willing to go out and replace your existing movie collection with a version that delivered superior pictures on your HDTV? The movie moguls are hoping you will, and they are working with the consumer electronic companies to bring some sort of HD version of DVD to market? Unfortunately, unless these folks get their acts together, we’re in for a new video format war.

    In this corner is HD DVD, and in that corner is Blue-ray, or BD (for Blue-ray Disc). The former will deliver a single layer capacity of 15GB and a dual-layer capacity of 30GB. BD will provide 25GB and 50GB. Now, on the surface, it would seem that BD is superior. You’ll be able to put more video content on the same disc, or store more computer data. But the argument is more complicated than that, and involves the cost of modifying existing DVD manufacturing facilities, copy protection and lots more.

    Movie studios are split into the two camps, and Paramount says it’ll release titles in both formats. As far as computer companies are concerned, the likes of Apple, Dell and HP are aligned with BD, but Intel and Microsoft have come out in favor of HD DVD. Talk about confusion.

    How this will all play out is anyone’s guess, since players in both formats are due out early in 2006. There is even talk of a player than can handle both formats, plus the standard definition DVDs and all the rest. That, in the end, may be the best solution, assuming there’s not a large price premium for the extra circuitry. Right now, however, the real question is whether anyone really cares. As I said, you get a pretty good picture from a DVD on today’s high definition TV. It’ll take a pretty large screen to perceive the advantages of a DVD in either high definition format. Worse, with two competing formats, the public is apt to be confused, and may opt to ignore both until things settle down.

    One can always hope the electronics and movie industries will find some way to face reality. But I’m not holding my breath.

    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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