• Newsletter Issue #307

    October 17th, 2005


    As we approach our third anniversary, it’s moving day. Yes, after 12 years in the same location, and that’s a record for us, we’re moving to a new home office. Of course that means that everything is in disarray, other than the core complement of equipment needed to get online and broadcast the show. It also means that, for the next week or two, shipment of prizes to the winners of our various contests will be delayed, but things should be well sorted out before the end of the month. As annoying as the moving process can be, it gives us all a chance to get rid of old junk that has been piling up for years, and reorganize everything so the office will run, we hope, more efficiently.

    On the October 13th episode, we were joined by a stellar cast that included Rob Pegoraro, Consumer Technology Editor for The Washington Post, eWeek columnist David Coursey, Macworld’s Christopher Breen and Dan Frakes and industry analyst Joe Wilcox. We covered Apple’s quarterly financials, the iPod with video, the new iMac and lots more.

    For October 20th, entering our fourth year of regular broadcasting, we’ll be joined by Adam Engst, publisher of the oldest surviving Mac newsletter, TidBITS and we’ll pay another visit to The David Biedny Zone. By the way, David has been invited to this week’s Apple gathering in New York City, so you can expect lots of information and plenty of unique insights into the new product announcements.

    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 or download the Podcast version. Enjoy.


    This old adage generally applies to political alliances, such as two countries that are normally political opposites but who team up against a third country in time of war. I don’t need to be specific, for history shows many alliances.

    Now consider Microsoft’s plight. It’s pitiful attempt to establish a musical download service, MSN Music, ended up virtually invisible in the marketplace. Apple did to Microsoft what Microsoft almost did to Apple in the operating system wars, which was to gain what remains an insurmountable lead. The question, then, is how it can show its muscle against Apple’s dominance in an era where riding roughshod over your competitor might just bring with it a little too much attention from the Department of Justice and the European Union.

    Is there any other company out there that has managed to annoy Apple in some fashion? Aha! RealNetworks. Now maybe it’s music subscription plan doesn’t differ all that much from some other also-rans in the legal download business, but it has done one thing to stick it to Apple. And that is to make its Harmony software support iPods. Of course, Steve Jobs rebuffed Real’s efforts to open its closed ecosystem, but it did it anyway by reverse engineering or whatever, and that display of sheer guts (or sheer stupidity, if you prefer) must have impressed Bill Gates.

    But wait a minute? Wasn’t Real involved in a legal skirmish with Microsoft, a one billion dollar antitrust suit?

    Strange how a common enemy can help two warring technology companies come to a settlement. So we have this unexpected picture of Bill Gates and Real’s CEO, Rob Glaser, shaking hands and saying nice things to each other. Indeed, rather than spin its own music subscription service, Microsoft will support Real’s on its MSN Music site. In addition, Real’s service will be integrated into MSN’s search engine and MSN Messenger.

    Yes, there will still be a Windows Media Player and a RealPlayer, and they will continue to compete against each other in various ways. But they have unique against the common enemy, iTunes.

    Now this isn’t the only area where Microsoft has decided to mend fences with former adversaries. Last year, for example, it resolved an antitrust dispute with Sun Microsystems, another deal that involved the two companies cooperating rather than giving their lawyers fat paychecks. It’s all part of Microsoft’s effort to put its antitrust history behind it.

    But the most interesting deal is still the one that Microsoft hopes will give it more leverage to become a stronger competitor to Apple in the music arena. No, there will not be a music or video player with the Microsoft or Real brand. That will still be up to third party makers, and they will still have to figure out some way to compete with the iPod. You’ll also notice that Apple’s stock hasn’t taken a sudden hit over the Microsoft/Real pact. The perception appears to be that two losers are combining resources but will remain losers.

    What’s more, I don’t think that Apple’s dominance of the digital music arena is due for any change in the near future. Microsoft can team with anyone it wants, but it won’t make people suddenly give up iTunes and switch to Real, Napster or Yahoo Music. The Apple advantage remains the same, and that’s the amazingly simple iPod user interface and its near-seamless integration with iTunes and the music store. Well, make that music/video store, although the name hasn’t changed as of this writing.

    If you really want to get an idea just how difficult a time Microsoft and Real will have in competing with Apple, you might want to take a look at the cover story in this week’s issue of Time. Entitled “How Apple Does It,” it profiles the company’s unique product creation process. Without going into detail, it describes how, once a product is given the go-ahead, the various departments of the company are in “lock step” to make it happen. The buzzwords used are “deep collaboration,” “cross-pollination” or “concurrent engineering,” but it really means that, once Steve Jobs gives the go-ahead, everyone works together to build the best product they can.

    Jobs is not a person, as you probably expect, to accept any opposition to his particular way of doing business. Here’s one quote that explains it all, “We’ve been doing this now for seven years, and everybody here gets it. And if they don’t, they’re gone.”

    How Microsoft can beat that approach, however many also-rans it joins up with, is anyone’s guess. If Apple is going to fail, it’ll likely be, as before, the result of its own missteps rather than the efforts of its fractured competition.


    Whenever I set up a new cell phone, after receiving a test unit, or buying one, I wonder if the manufacturers are all drinking from the bottle of intoxicant? Sure there are usually several givens about handset design, such as a button with a green icon to initiate or answer a call, and a red icon to end it. On a clamshell phone, assuming you activate what’s usually the default setting, you open it to talk, and close it to hang up. Of course, the numerical phone keypad is usually unchanged, although some makers seem to have forgotten that people are supposed to be able to press those buttons easily, usually with some sort of subtle feedback to know the action was successful. And that’s not always a given.

    But when you try to extend your phone’s functions beyond that of making and receiving calls, all bets are off. Today’s typical mobile phone must also function as a personal organizer, camera, Internet access device, music player and whatever else the maker can stuff into it to make you want to buy one.

    It’s not that I am opposed to having all these functions integrated into one device. In fact, I expect that more features will be bundled into those devices over time. My problem is how you set up and access those extra functions, and it’s no wonder you may have to pour over a tiny manual with over 100 pages to sort things out, and, even then, you may end up more confused than informed.

    I won’t say that the functions are not clearly labeled, or that you can’t, if you explore things long enough, figure things out for yourself. But the phones usually feel as if the added functions were tacked on, rather than well integrated. Take my Motorola E815, for example. It’s actually quite a good phone, with good reception, better than average voice quality, with a keypad made from switches that provide solid tactile feedback. True, Verizon Wireless has crippled its Bluetooth functions, so you can’t transfer files between the phone and your computer, but that’s the fault of the carrier, not the manufacturer.

    What is irritating is that Motorola’s product designers, who also bought us the RAZR and the ROKR, haven’t a clue about proper interface design. Say you want to pair your phone with a Bluetooth headset or a car similarly equipped. Take a look at the Settings menu and guess which ones apply. No, it’s not the Initial Setup function, which doesn’t consider the possibility that you’ll want to network the unit with another device. In-Call Setup? No, that covers such functions as whether this clamshell phone will answer a call when opened.

    As you scroll down the settings, you come across Network Info, which covers the phone’s connection to the carrier’s network, not the one in your car or the one used by your wireless headset. Car Settings is part of the answer, since it controls some of the features, but doesn’t actually initiate the pairing process. For that you need to choose Connection. Now wasn’t that just plain as day? No, don’t expect people to real the manuals. You shouldn’t need to read a manual to use a consumer electronics device. That’s what Apple Computer has been telling you for years, and that’s the reasoning behind the highly envied design of the iPod and its new remote control device, Front Row.

    Some months ago, while interviewing a technology columnist on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I made the half-serious suggestion that the cell phone makers camp out at Apple’s headquarters and beg for help. That’s one idea, half-baked at the time, that I’ve begun to take seriously.


    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

    | Print This Issue Print This Issue

    Leave Your Comment