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Newsletter Issue #311

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

Are you a member of the iPod cult? If you own an iPod, the answer is probably yes, as Leander Kahney, author of “The Cult of iPod,” explained on our November 10th show. We were also joined by John Rizzo, author of “Mac Annoyances,” and we paid another visit to “The David Biedny Zone.” This week, David went after the music companies and other elements of the entertainment industry.

As you may have heard, Sony BMG has drawn lots of fire because of its latest digital rights management scheme, which involves installing what some regard as spyware on a Windows PC. For the time being, Sony says it’ll stop manufacturing CDs with this sort of copy protection, but that still means that thousands or perhaps millions of CDs with that software remain in the dealer channel.

Worse, you never know when Sony will deliver even another production run of copy-protected CDs, and whether it might just get the bright idea to attempt to install similar clandestine software on Macs. Well, Molly Wood of CNET has been following this saga, and she’ll deliver the latest updates during our November 17th show. Other guests will be announced during the week.

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.

THE APPLE/INTEL REPORT: CLONE SPECULATION REARS ITS UGLY HEAD

When Steve Jobs regained control of Apple, among his first acts was to ditch the Mac OS clone program. His action came as no surprise, because clones were killing the company. As Jobs later commented, Apple was losing hundreds of dollars from each sale of one of those compatible computers. Of course, one wonders how the company’s previous occupants of the executive suite would have devised such a wrongheaded contract, but that’s just a footnote in history and not worth further discussion, but for one thing. You see, some are suggesting that Apple plans to open the clone spigots all over again.

Where did this idea emerge? Well, first of all there’s the switch to Intel processors. Second, news that some crackers did manage to make a prerelease version of Mac OS X for Intel run on generic PC boxes. Add up these two facts and they conclude, maybe with a modicum of logic, that Apple may be dragged kicking and screaming into a cloning program of some sort.

Maybe so, but I don’t think it’ll happen any time in the foreseeable future unless Apple’s hardware sales took a huge dip and they were desperate. The trends, however, are moving rapidly in the other direction, so cloning doesn’t seem like a credible move, at least from my point of view.

First things first: I do not think that the fact that the digital rights management scheme used in a test version of Mac OS X for Intel necessarily reflects what Apple will be using in its final release. Maybe it will demonstrate potential security lapses, but that’s about it. I think that Apple will do everything it can to prevent you from running Mac OS X on unsanctioned hardware. And if it did run, there would be so many limitations, it wouldn’t be worth the effort.

Of course, the arguments in favor of cloning aren’t coming from people who want Apple to fail. Even Steve Jobs admits that some PC makers have asked Apple about licensing, so you know the demand is there. It is also quite possible that Dell, HP and all the rest will sell millions and millions of boxes with Mac OS X preloaded if they had the chance.

At the same time, it can open a can of worms. One of the reasons Microsoft has so much trouble getting Windows releases out on time, and in reasonably stable form, is because it has to be compatible with an untold number of computer systems and peripherals. Microsoft has no control over any of these products and the illusion of “plug and play” remains an illusion. Yes, things may work all right with some popular hardware, but in a world of home-built PCs and no-name variants, things can easily fall apart at the seams.

Do you think it would be any different for Apple? It’s hard enough to keep Mac OS X compatible with a relatively small number of Mac configurations. Mac OS X maintenance updates come along every month or two to fix various and sundry problems with existing hardware. Imagine how the situation would be if Apple had to test its operating system against hundreds or thousands of PC boxes over which it had no control? Even a carefully calculated cloning program, using software and hardware protections and limited to a handful of computer makers would complicate quality control testing procedures big time.

Rest assured Apple’s torrid pace of operating system releases would also slow down considerably, although I suppose adding additional programmers and Q&A people might help some.

All right, that’s one problem. The other is selling real Macs in an environment where competitors are nipping at its heels in every single market segment. During the original clone program, Apple hoped it would expand its market, but companies such as Power Computing simply built cheaper and faster computers and went after the existing customers with a vengeance. Why pay what some regard as a premium price for a genuine Mac, when you can buy the imitation for less money (even if it’s not as well equipped)?

It’s also completely against the vision of Steve Jobs of a closed ecosystem for Apple’s products. Look at the iPod and how Jobs has resisted requests to allow you to use it with competing music services. Tech pundits claim this is the iPod’s achilles heel and that Apple would be forced to remove those restrictions some day. But right now, the iPod isn’t losing steam, and you and I do indeed benefit from the smooth integration between iTunes and the world’s most popular music player.

While I am in favor of open markets and all that, I can understand that Apple’s tightly controlled environment serves more than just greed. You benefit because the iPod is not just a product, but part of a digital music system. At the same time, Apple’s highly integrated digital lifestyle applications provide a smooth and compelling user experience for Mac users. For the Windows switcher, it’s a unique experience that quickly demonstrates their decision to switch platforms was the right one.

In the end, Apple might consider limited cloning to reach into market segments where it has little penetration now, such as large businesses. But there are so many landmines in such a move that it would be forced to consider the obstacles carefully and with extreme caution.

But I don’t see it happening any time soon. Even after the transition to Intel is complete, Mac OS X will still run only on Macs. Of course, you’ll be able to run Windows and probably Linux on the very same computers, perhaps even in virtual windows. But if Michael Dell expects to be able to sell Mac OS X on Dell boxes, he’s dreaming.

THE TECH NIGHT OWL: WILL THE REAL SUPERMAN PLEASE STAND UP!

When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman in the 1930s, I doubt that they expected the character would soon become the world’s most famous action hero. Indeed, as fans await the arrival of “Superman Returns” in June of next year, you wonder just how the “Man of Steel” will fare in his 21st century incarnation.

For the sake of this discussion, I’ll ignore the TV cartoon versions and the various incarnations of a young Superman in “Superboy” and “Smallville.”

In the old days, Superman and other cartoon characters got “B” movie treatment in live action versions, which meant low budgets, poor special effects and sometimes amateurish acting. It took 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” to demonstrate that superior special effects and a list of A-list actors would serve the character well.

At the same time, the actors who have portrayed Superman over the years haven’t always delivered particularly memorable performances. Beginning in 1948, a live version of Superman was featured in a pair of movie serials, starring Kirk Alyn in his first featured role. Alyn certainly looked the part, and he had a deep, rich speaking voice, but his didn’t display much in the way of acting chops. Despite turning down the role for the TV series, he still found himself typecast, and went on to a career consisting largely of bit parts and commercials.

For many fans, the quintessential Superman was the late George Reeves, who became one of the most popular TV actors during the 1950s. In over 100 episodes, Reeves projected a dynamic personality and winning smile in both his Superman and Clark Kent personas. He may not have been the best actor on the planet, but his performance became the benchmark for the character.

Reeves became a part of the Hollywood mystique as a result of his death in 1959 from a gunshot wound that was said to be self-inflicted. Many felt that Reeves had succumbed to the “Superman Curse,” and found himself unable to get any other roles as he reached middle age. To this very day, some suggest that Reeves was actually murdered and can point to what they claim are serious lapses in the investigation of the case.

In taking over the role of Superman for four films, Christopher Reeve (no relation to George Reeves) worked hard to portray Superman and his alter ego as having two totally different personalities. I was never comfortable watching him treat Kent as a nerdy goofball, although he tempered the excesses in the various sequels.

The TV series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” starred Dean Cain as a sensitive 1990’s variation on the theme. It lasted four years, and some feel that having Lois and Superman marry in the final year put the nail in the coffin. The sexual tension between Cain and his co-star, Terry Hatcher, was gone, and the scripts seemed to lose their sparkle. I’ll be generous and say that Cain’s portrayal was, well, a little bland.

For “Superman Returns,” the role has been inherited by Brandon Routh, whose career, up to now, has consisted of a stint on a soap opera and several TV guest spots. He seems a bit young for the role, at least based on the publicity pictures I’ve seen. How his performance be rated in comparison with the benchmark, which I consider to be George Reeves, will, however, be truly known on June 30, 2006.

THE FINAL WORD

The Mac Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

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