• Newsletter Issue #316

    December 19th, 2005

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    I like to think that, after three years of doing this show, I have a handle on what our listeners like, and about the audio quality of the broadcast, which has improved over time. But some folks have other ideas. The other day, I applied for a listing in a certain Podcast directory (it will go unnamed), and got a response that we didn’t meet their quality standards. No, not the content, but the bit rate. Seems that nobody who broadcasts at less than 48K, even though the content is primarily the spoken word, is good enough in their eyes. I took a few moments to send a message to remind them that most talk radio is on standard AM, where audio quality is decidedly inferior to their standards. I also pointed out that phone calls from guests and listeners, staples on such programs, are decidedly limited in frequency range. Besides, I don’t want to make it impossible for folks with dial-up connections to receive our live broadcasts. No, I didn’t except a response, nor did I receive one.

    On our December 15th episode, we featured Gregory “Dr. Smoke” Swain, author of a new e-book, “Troubleshooting Mac OS X,” and covered some of the persistent issues that vex Tiger users. We also heard from Paul Kent, conference chairperson for the Macworld Expo, who briefed us about the special events at San Francisco next month. In addition, we paid another visit to “The David Biedny Zone,” where our outspoken guest provided his unique insights about Aperture, Apple’s new image editing software, and other subjects.

    For December 22nd, we have some guests you probably haven’t heard elsewhere. First off, we’ll rediscover terrestrial radio with Bob Crane, head of C. Crane Company. You’ve probably heard the company’s ads, and you’ll enjoy Bob’s stories and insights about enjoying the best that radio has to offer. We’ll also be joined by Jason E. Barkeloo, of Somatic Digital, a firm that has developed a fascinating hybrid solution that links the printed page with online content. Another guest will be announced shortly.

    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, video tuner/recorders, 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 MAC HARDWARE REPORT: A PITCH FOR A CHEAP LAPTOP

    To some degree, you might compare Apple with Acura, a luxury car maker that sells loaded models, with all or most of the options as standard equipment. There is no such thing as the stripped down model, which is one reason why Macs are believed to cost more than their counterparts from the land of Windows.

    I could, of course, protest till I’m blue in the face that such comparisons aren’t fair. You have to load up the PC with the same equipment as the Mac, and when you do, you’ll see that prices are almost the same. In fact, the PC often ends up as the more expensive product. At the same time, if you’re on a budget, and you see the ads for a Dell desktop system at $399 and a laptop at $499, such considerations may not be terribly helpful.

    Of course, you may wish choose something laden with more features, and you may end up adding memory, swapping optical drives and other components. But the options to enhance a laptop are minimal, unless you are technically competent, and money doesn’t matter. But once again, if the bottom line very strongly influenced your purchase decision, it’s hard to reconcile the choice between a $499 product and a $999 product. I’m overlooking, for the moment, other considerations, such as the superior reliability of most Mac hardware and the undeniable advantages of the Mac OS over Windows.

    Now some have suggested that one reason for Apple’s switch to Intel processors is price. While Apple isn’t saying precisely what it will be paying for the new generation of Intel chips, there’s little evidence that it’ll be that much less than the parts from Freescale Semiconductor and IBM. In fact, I’ve heard a claim or two that the prices may go up.

    Now for the most part, Macs contain many of the same components as Windows counterparts, except for the custom designed logic board and the processor. Here Intel offers a potential advantage, and that’s a fully integrated chipset that includes not just the processor, but support for such features as Serial ATA for storage devices, USB, high quality audio, PCI Express and wireless networking. By relying on a prebuilt solution of this sort, production costs can be shaved, in theory at least. I don’t know to what degree, of course, but it should help Apple build a laptop with a lower price point.

    It will still be important to include all the features that Mac users take for granted, of course, but a fully outfitted iBook for, say, $799, would seem a somewhat easier sell for folks who shop strictly on the basis of price. Now before I go on, let me tell you what Dell pulls when you try to order one of its cheap laptops. If you attempt to select a model and place that order, you’ll be confronted with Upgrade Alert screens, where you are asked to customize the unit with extra stuff. A couple of clicks and you find that your $499 computer costs over $900 and you’re not through yet. It’s a clever variation of the bait and switch scheme, but if you withstand the onslaught, you might still be able to get away without spending too much extra.

    None of these considerations, however, reduce the pressure on Apple to find a way to reduce prices, as it has been able to do with the iPod. When you compare those other MP3 players with an iPod, in most cases Apple has the cheaper product. Of course, it benefits from economy of scale, and also some very smart moves, such as cornering the market on high density flash memory.

    Clearly Apple can’t do much of that in the PC arena, because it is still a niche player, even though market share is on the rise. It can, however, continue to reduce production costs by keeping the variations to a minimum. When you go to Apple’s site to customize your iBook, for example, the expansion options are limited to the hard drive and RAM. To that, you can have iWork ’05 preloaded, and order an external keyboard and mouse.

    At the same time, if you bought a Mac that didn’t contain the full complement of connection ports and digital lifestyle software, you’d feel cheated. You don’t expect a stripped-down computer, and I don’t expect Apple is going to change that policy. However, if Intel’s preconfigured chipsets help reduce production costs, you will benefit from the price reductions. More and more PC owners are choosing portables, and Apple needs to be a little more competitive in this arena. To be blunt, the iBook, while undeniably attractive, is long in the tooth. In today’s market, it is decidedly underpowered and battery life is strictly all right, but could be better. I mean, do you really believe your iBook will actually approach the rated six hours battery life of the current model in normal use?

    Of course, in a few weeks, we’ll know just how far Apple intends to move in the cheap laptop arena. That, of course, assumes that all those predictions of the January introduction of Intel-based computers are true. But at this point, even if Apple had other ideas, it may have no choice.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: WANT AN IPOD? GOOD LUCK!

    A few days ago, I dropped into a Radio Shack to pick up mobile phone charger, when I overheard a conversation. Seemed someone wanted an iPod—no big surprise—and wondered what they had in stock. The person processing my transaction muttered something about getting a supply of the 30GB iPods with video in a few days, but that was it for the holiday season. He then went on to comment that he had heard that The Apple Store had increased the price by $100 to gouge customers who couldn’t find the products anywhere else.

    Of course, you and I know that the story told by that Radio Shack person about price-gouging just isn’t true, but that doesn’t mean Apple has had much luck keeping the products in stock. For example the 1GB iPod shuffle won’t be available again until the middle part of January, and some are betting it’ll come in a brand new form factor. There’s also a two-week backlog on the 4GB iPod nano, but everything else seems to be available, at least from Apple. How this affects sales is anyone’s guess, of course. Only Apple knows how many it managed to produce for this quarter, but I expect most everything will be a sellout.

    I’m also intrigued by the story quoting Morgan Stanley, the large international financial services company, that there is more demand for iPods than mobile phones this holiday season. On the other hand, I don’t think people really lust after cell phones. They are essentially necessities, and you just pick the cheapest models from the provider of your choice, or the ones with a few added frills in looks and features, such as a Motorola RAZR. And, by the way, the Verizon Wireless has just discovered the RAZR and added it to its current product line. I’ll be examining this version in a future newsletter.

    In any case, those who usually buy presents on Christmas Eve are going to be disappointed if they haven’t stocked up on iPods for family, friends and business associates. Of course, they can always take a Mac instead. It is clear that most of you are unwilling to buy any of those “other” MP3 players.

    So what should you choose in the waning days of the holiday season if the iPod you wanted is is no longer available? Well, if you already have an iPod, of course, there are those ubiquitous accessories, hundreds of them, to expand the its capabilities, or just protect it from damage. Even the stores that are sold out if the players themselves seem to be able to offer a fair selection of add-ons, and they might be good second choices.

    I suppose you could consider other products at your consumer electronics store. While high definition TV doesn’t seem quite as hot as last year, despite the sharply lowered prices, the standard categories, such as DVD players and digital cameras, remain popular. Satellite radios also appear to be hot tickets. Sirius is selling Howard Stern big time, and hoping that millions of you will help it defray the $500 million dollar investment in liberating the country’s most famous shock jock from terrestrial radio. XM is countering with an emphasis on the variety of programming and the low price of its receivers. Of course, once you bring one of those receivers home, you’ll find the standard monthly subscription fees of the two services are identical. And, as I said, it is unfortunate that there are no receivers that I know about that can receive both. So if you want both Howard and, say, National League baseball, you’re out of luck unless you buy separate receivers for each, a solution that would be highly inconvenient in a car, though it’s possible to do it.

    As for myself, I think I have enough electronic toys for 2005, though some DVDs and CDs might be good choices for a last-minute shopping trip.

    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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