• Newsletter Issue #321

    January 23rd, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    Is there a difference between a Podcast and other types of radio programming? Well, it’s easier to create in one respect, because you don’t need expensive transmission and mixing equipment. All you need is a mic, some software to record your programs, and a place to store the files for convenient downloads. You can, of course, add the capability of live streaming, assuming you can handle the bandwidth of simultaneous downloads of your content, or you’re willing to pay a third party hosting service to handle this for you.

    But a radio show is still a radio show, regardless of the delivery system. Content, delivery and production values are still important, and the best online shows should be as good as terrestrial-based shows in that respect. I would hope, though, that the Podcasting revolution will equalize the playing field, and give more talented people a chance to succeed in the business without the huge capital investment, or the hope that someone will give them a lucrative job at a regular station.

    Back to our little corner of the world, last week’s show included one more interview recorded at Macworld Expo, a preview of QuarkXPress 7.0 with Marc Horne of Quark, Inc. We also featured Macworld’s Jason Snell and author Kirk McElhearn, both of whom explained whether the recent iTunes update really acted like spyware and adware. Intuit’s Scott Gulbransen was on hand to talk about the newest version of TurboTax. He also revealed that he was not only a Mac switcher, but that TurboTax, both the Mac and Windows versions, is being developed on Macs.

    This coming week, we’ll feature noted industry analyst Ross Rubin. We’ll also present another visit with Transitive Corporation, whose technology is employed in Apple’s Rosetta technology, which is used to run PowerPC applications on the new generation of Intel-based Macs. More guests will be announced shortly.

    In case you’re wondering about that other show, “The Paracast,” we have a couple of shows almost ready to roll, and we are now planning a debut before the end of January. Our first guests will include the famous author of over 160 books, Brad Steiger, and the always outspoken Jim Moseley, publisher of “Saucer Smear.”

    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 APPLE REPORT: THE LOST ART OF JOURNALISM

    Although many people are doing it, being a journalist isn’t easy. This is especially true when you’re trying to make sense out of a new law, a scientific breakthrough, or a trial with sophisticated forensic evidence. Since we’re all human, or claim to be, we make mistakes. That’s one reason why you might read two stories about the very same event, and come away with different conclusions about what happened.

    But imperfection doesn’t give anyone an excuse not to pay attention and make a good faith attempt to get things right. More to the point, when the basic set of facts are simple, there are fewer reasons to make serious errors.

    Take Apple’s switch to Intel processors. Apple clearly didn’t make this move to save money, despite what some claim. In fact, some reports suggest Apple might be paying Intel a higher price for its parts than it paid IBM and Freescale Semiconductor. It was a matter of delivery of higher performance processors with reduced power requirements. IBM failed to produce the promised 3GHz version of the G5, and had difficulty taming the chip for a laptop. The G4 almost seems a processor from another era.

    Steve Jobs made a smart decision several years ago, and that was to develop a version of Mac OS X for Intel simultaneously with the PowerPC version. That way, if Apple needed to make another processor change, it could be done in a very short time. Last June, when the news first emerged, I’m sure few believed it would happen in just seven months.

    In any case, there should be no dispute about these basic elements. Yet that didn’t stop some people from getting a lot of it wrong, or engaging in unfounded speculation with a conspiratorial bend. Some suggested, with no real facts to back them up, that Apple had some ulterior motives in making this switch beyond, of course, simply producing better products.

    But that isn’t all. Now that Apple touts the superior performance of the Intel Core Duo chips it’s using in the new iMac and forthcoming MacBook Pro, where does that leave previous claims that the PowerPC was better? Does it really mean that Apple was lying all along, that its benchmarks were fake? Well, as you might expect, those tests were designed to exploit the advantages of the G4 and G5, but the results were real. And, no, the equipment wasn’t specially tweaked to favor Apple? In fact, when I was writing columns for a major newspaper company, I actually ran some of those tests, using Apple’s methodology, and came away with very similar results.

    In short, they were accurate then, and they are accurate now, if you use the same testing methods of course. It’s just that Intel’s processor roadmap began to favor Apple’s needs more than the road maps of its other chip suppliers, so it made the switch. Yes, developers will have to work hard to update their products, and there will be performance bottlenecks until the major productivity applications are produced in Universal form, so they run native for both PowerPC and Intel Macs. But you have to agree that a lot of progress has been made so far.

    This multiple processor strategy actually works better for Apple. If IBM produces a G6 at some point in the future that is compatible with the G5 and smokes anything Intel can produce in terms of performance and power efficiency, Apple can use that chip without disrupting the marketplace. Or it can go to AMD, and some are suggesting it should have done that all along.

    This is nothing more than a smart business decision. Let’s forget about conspiracies.

    Now let’s look at the stories about iTunes 6.0.2, and Apple’s alleged attempt to collect information about your listening habits without your approval. You have probably read several stories about what really happened and have come away confused about the process. Again, a very simple set of basic facts that got messed up in the translation.

    Here’s what really happened: If you clicked on a song in the new version of iTunes, that information was sent to the iTunes Music Store and Apple would deliver a list of suggestions from the same artist or genre in a MiniStore window. Period. This is similar to the way it works at Amazon.com, where you click on an item and it remembers where you’ve been and suggests other merchandise that might interest you.

    Apple’s method of handling this neat little feature wasn’t very smart. You weren’t notified in advance what was going on, and the feature was turned on by default. After that outcry about spyware, the act of retrieving your information, and adware, the act of delivering promotional information in response, Apple changed its tune, if you’ll forgive the pun. Now when you first launch iTunes, you get a clearly labeled notice at the bottom of the player window as to just what the MiniStore is all about, and that information about the item you click is sent to Apple. You can click a button to turn it on, and click it again to turn it off. That’s the beginning and end of the story.

    Yes, Apple should have done that all along, of course, and maybe in the rush to get the software out in time for Macworld Expo, a few things were overlooked. I’d rather regard it as a set of innocent human errors, not a gigantic plot to steal information about you. But this didn’t stop some commentators from getting it all wrong. Some suggested switching the MiniStore off was a complicated procedure, as if clicking a button or choosing Hide MiniStore from the Edit menu was difficult. Others didn’t realize that the information was only sent when you clicked on an item in your playlist, although this is something anyone can confirm with a quick test.

    As I said, human errors can occur. When the information is complicated, it’s understandable. When the information is simple to grasp, and one claims to be a journalist, the lapses are harder to forgive. When I make a mistake, and you readers are quick to alert me when it happens, I try to fix the error. That’s the advantage of a Web site, which can be updated easily. In the print world, there is a corrections page, one that, alas, isn’t used often enough.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: STILL ANOTHER RADIO FORMAT?

    It’s hard enough to try to make sense of all the digital TV formats we have in the U.S., such as Standard Definition, Extended Definition and several flavors of High Definition. Not to be outdone, the terrestrial radio companies are struggling to find a way to live long and prosper with satellite radio growing rapidly and they’ve also come up with a digital transmission method, known as HD radio.

    How does this impact you? Well, you’ll need a new radio to hear these HD signals. But, unlike the switch to digital TV, standard AM and FM won’t soon become obsolete. The move to digital, however, will provide superior audio quality. AM radio will be static free, near as good as FM. FM radio will become a closer match to CD, although I rather suspect it’ll take a very high quality stereo system to hear the difference. In addition, like digital TV, stations will have the ability to transmit additional programming on the same frequency. The technique is called Multicasting. Clever, eh?

    But HD radio’s success isn’t certain. There are few HD receivers available, and they are expensive. One unit listed at C. Crane Company, made by Boston Acoustics, sells for nearly $500. Worse, only a few stations are broadcasting HD signals. Here in Arizona, for example, there are ten stations throughout the state licensed for the new technology as of this writing, but only five are on the air. Only one of these stations is taking advantage of Multicasting. Now that Boston Acoustics radio also receives standard AM and FM signals, and it has an iPod input, so it won’t be useless when HD programming is sparse.

    Like all new technologies, costs will come down over time, but it’s going to be a “Catch 22.” Station owners may want to wait for more potential listeners to buy receivers, while you and I will wait for more stations to transmit something to listen to.

    In theory, HD radio sounds terrific. Even though AM radio is mostly talk these days, getting FM quality, without the prevalent background noise heard on many stations, seems a wonderful idea, in theory at least. But do you really care? Right now, some AM-based talk shows have higher ratings in many cities than FM programming, even though the sound quality is inferior.

    That the large radio station chains have agreed on a single technology is helpful, and it’ll avoid the confusion that occurred with super quality CD formats, and the forthcoming format wars over high definition DVD technology. On the other hand, is HD radio a just another cool technology that few really care about? I mean, have you been begging your local stations to produce better sound quality? Will you cancel your satellite radio subscriptions if HD radio takes off? What with the growth of Podcasting and other online radio programming, do we really need another incompatible format?

    I, for one, plan to sit on the sidelines for now and see how it all plays out. If more programming appears in my area, of course, I might relent and contact one of the hardware companies about getting some products to review. For now, however, I’m skeptical that the radio alternative to HDTV will go anywhere any time soon.

    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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