• Newsletter Issue #308

    October 24th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    You can’t imagine any thing more difficult than taking a regular hotel room and, temporarily at least, remaking it as a radio station. But the new home office wasn’t ready, and there was no choice. Running a repeat wasn’t an option, with so many wonderful guests available, but I can imagine the strange looks on the part of the housekeeping staff when they saw all that strange equipment and wiring on a corner desk.

    Fortunately, everything went off pretty much as planned. Most of the equipment we use for The Tech Night Owl LIVE is reasonably portable, although I wouldn’t recommend lugging a Power Mac G5 around unless you really dig exercise.

    For October 20th, as we entered the show’s fourth year, we were joined by Adam Engst, publisher of the oldest surviving Mac newsletter, TidBITS. Adam spent much of the interview talking about how the Mac community has changed over the years. We also heard from Greg Brewer or Prosoft Engineering about Drive Genius, a multifaceted hard drive maintenance tool. Our visit to the The David Biedny Zone was extensive and varied. David attended Apple’s special event in New York, where its new photo retouching application, Aperture, debuted, along with upgrades to the PowerBook and Power Mac. The show also included David’s unique slant on the iPod with video.

    Our October 27th, we’ll be joined by multimedia wizard Jim Heid and other guests. We’ll have more announcements on the lineup later in the week.

    Despite relocating to new facilities, we’re still 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.

    PROFILE OF A REAL IPOD KILLER

    This article is not what you expect. I am not going to take someone’s also-ran MP3 player and proclaim it the next great thing, the product that will bring Apple Computer to its knees. Sorry to disappoint you, folks, but I think that the misinformed tech journalists who write about such things just don’t get it, any more than the companies that build those products.

    Instead, I’m going to take a few very obvious facts and deliver some very obvious conclusions. Of course, acting on those conclusions isn’t going to be terribly easy, but at least they will have an idea what they’re up against.

    The very first critical mistake those other digital music player companies make is to compete on the basis of features. Apple doesn’t build an FM tuner, so they add one. A built-in microphone? Sure, why not? Did they actually assemble a focus group to tally up the features people want, as Microsoft is won’t to do before it releases a new version of Office.

    Well, my friends, Apple is king of the hill and it doesn’t do focus groups. But since the competitors can’t clone Steve Jobs and his talented product design crew, they’ll just have to figure out a different way to compete. This doesn’t mean that Sony and Creative and all the rest don’t have talented people working for them. It’s very possible the concept of a genuine iPod killer is laying dormant even now, because a company doesn’t understand how to exploit it.

    The one thing these companies do not understand is that the iPod is not just a digital music player. It is part of a tightly integrated system that also includes the music store and the seamless connection with iTunes. While many companies and columnists clamor for Apple to unlock its closed ecosystem, that is not something that anyone should expect now or ever. Why should Apple surrender its most important advantage over the competition?

    The iPod user doesn’t have to worry about making the player mate properly with third party software, or music services with different levels of compatibility and ease of navigation. Yes, iTunes has bugs from time to time, and some can be downright irritating, but Apple will fix them before they get out of hand. You can usually depend on that. What’s more, whether you have a Mac or a Windows PC, you can depend on using the very same software in pretty much the same way to manage your music library.

    The competition? Strictly Windows. Despite Apple’s recent growth path, which exceeds the rest of the PC industry by a wide margin, the likes of Napster, Real and Yahoo haven’t considered the Mac as a viable platform. These companies surely can’t afford to lose any potential customers, but they don’t seem to see it that way. Maybe they haven’t reached that level of desperation and somehow still harbor the belief that the dominance of the iTunes Music Store can’t persist. The bigger they are, and all that stuff.

    As to the player itself, packing on features is no way to compete with the iPod. It’s not just because Apple has built a cultural icon. Apple has been cautious about adding features to the basic iPod, leaving a clear path for third party providers to step in with their own accessories. You want an FM transmitter deliver audio to a car or home audio system? There are plenty to be had. Car adapters, remote controls, cases and all the rest. There are hundreds and hundreds of options. Now look at the accessory lineup for any other music player. Aside from a handful of offerings from the manufacturer itself, they are virtually nonexistent.

    It isn’t just the cottage industry that has arisen around the iPod that makes it so attractive, nor the good looks. Apple has found the magic interface formula, distilling everything down to its raw essentials. Young or old, no problem. Almost anyone can master the basics of the iPod in a few minutes without need of an instruction manual or helping hand. Even the President of the United States and the Queen of England use iPods, and no jokes please!

    What’s more, Apple has been vary careful about grafting on additional features. More features mean more complexity, and when you gain the ability to handle photos and videos, the additional capabilities must be presented as a natural part of the user interface. You apply the very same skills you learned from managing music to handling the rest of you stuff. Besides, as Apple admits, once you add a feature, it’s very difficult to take it out.

    That was also supposed to be the hallmark of the Mac OS, although cynics might assert that embracing a Unix-base has only made things far more complicated. I mean, did you ever imagine a Mac user would have to engage a command line to troubleshoot a problem? But don’t get me started.

    The trust of this article is whether a competitor can dethrone the iPod any time soon. Yes, my friends, it is possible, but the companies will have to change their ways. Now imagine what might happen if Real tried to build its own music player tightly integrated with its own music service, and gave more than lip service to ease of use. Yes, it may have to lock out third party players to achieve its goal, but it would be a start, at least, in trying to understand Apple’s advantage.

    And, no, I don’t expect that will occur any time soon. One day the iPod will lose its luster, but I do not see it happening overnight, and not without Apple putting up one whale of a fight to stay on top.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: THE UNEXPECTED RETURN TO COX

    When I first moved to Arizona in 1993, I ordered Cox cable for my TV, just like most of the other folks in my neighborhood. I never considered satellite TV even for a moment, but the reason escapes me now. Possibly this was before the satellite providers were required to carry local stations, and the prospect of having basic cable plus satellite, or, horror of horrors, installing an antenna didn’t appeal to me.

    However, in those days, it was basically a non-competitive environment and Cox evidently didn’t feel it was necessary to give its customers that extra dose of attention. It was only years later, with lots of competition to deliver a TV signal to your home, that Cox has apparently mended its ways, at least to some degree.

    As alternatives arose, I gave them a try. Qwest Communications had figured a way to deliver a digital TV signal to standard copper phone lines, plus broadband Internet, so I give it a whirl. But I settled on Cox for broadband, since there was nothing faster available at a consumer-level price. Qwest offered a decent TV package, with adequate reception and a low price, but its growth path was stalled, particularly with the advent of high definition television.

    So I went to Dish Network, and found better reception, more stations for the same price, including a small selection of high definition alternatives. Segue to 2005, as both Dish and DirecTV consider how local HDTV will be delivered to your home. It’s all about bandwidth and the solution will come in the form of new satellites and a switch to MPEG-4 for video compression. This also means that you will very likely have to turn in your digital receiver for a version with the hardware to support the new, more efficient encoding scheme, and that’s apt to cause lots of disruption.

    Want local HDTV? Right now, it’s the off-air jack on your satellite service’s high definition receiver or DVR. That means installing an antenna folks. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you subscribe to cable or satellite because you wanted to ditch the antenna and enjoy superior quality and choice? Just asking!

    Well I really did give it a go. After testing several indoor antenna prospects, I settled on something bearing the name “Silver Sensor,” which delivered about half the local digital stations with decent reception. I didn’t choose the outdoor alternative, because I felt it was a waste of money, considering I planned to move anyway. Just a few days before the moving truck was due to arrive, I called Cox just to see what it could offer.

    The Cox proposal was a little more complicated than the ones from Dish and DirecTV, and the availability of an HD digital recorder with TiVo-like functionality wasn’t widely advertised. But they were able to assemble a package with more channels than Dish, plus just about every available local high definition channel in Phoenix. The price? Just $1.00 higher, with no obligation to buy equipment or commit to any particular contract.

    So I’m back to Cox. True, the first “tier” of stations is still analog, because Cox has tens of thousands of local customers who have yet to upgrade to digital, but picture quality isn’t altogether different. Besides, it’ll take years before that situation changes, despite efforts by the U.S. Congress to force digital TV into your home.

    However, having a full complement of high definition local stations really makes the difference. Despite the vast assemblage of junk on commercial TV, there are still a small number of gems to be found, and being able to watch them in wide screen format, with superb detail, is an unparalleled experience. Cox really came through this time. Alas, the TV networks have really overdone commercial clutter in recent years, but that, however, is a subject I’ll deal with at another time.

    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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