• Newsletter Issue #323

    February 6th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    A listener asked me the other day just how I prepared for the show, since he liked the way I handled interviews. Well, I don’t have a staff to research and write long lists of suggested questions, as they do on, say, Today or Good Morning America. My research consists of reading as much as I can about the subjects I cover, and I try to put myself in your shoes. I try to ask the questions you are likely to ask if you were hosting the show. That means I have to listen to the answers, and decide what to ask based on the responses before moving on to another subject.

    I seldom write anything down, although I might keep a few pages of background material at hand in case I run out of questions, something that doesn’t happen very often. I find it quite enjoyable to keep the element of uncertainty in the process. I firmly believe in our motto, “you never know what’s going to happen next,” because I don’t either. While I might try to steer a conversation in a particular direction, I relish the fact that the guest might have other ideas. As I’ve often said, the guest is the star on The Tech Night Owl LIVE, which separates us from other shows that hope to make the host some kind of celebrity. I believe few talk show people are truly capable of doing that successfully for any length of time.

    Speaking of the show, last week’s episode was another all-star event. Noted author and commentator Andy Ihnatko weighed in on the state of Apple Computer and provided predictions on potential Oscar winners. We also presented Microsoft’s Amanda Lefebvre, who outlined the company’s plans for new Mac products. Adam Engst, publisher of TidBITS, was on hand to discuss such provocative issues as computer recycling, and noted desktop publishing guru Galen Gruman gave a somewhat less-than-enthusiastic assessment of the forthcoming QuarkXPress 7.0.

    This week, we’ll hear from industry analyst Joe Wilcox of JupiterResearch, and David Loomstein, Intego’s newly-appointed U.S. Senior Business Development Manager, will be on hand to talk about the company’s line of Mac security products. 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. We hoped to debut this week, but the site and other elements just aren’t ready, and we’d like to give the show a little promotion ahead of its debut. So we’ve decided to postpone the show’s debut until the latter part of February. Our first guests will include the famous author of over 160 books, Brad Steiger, and the always outspoken Jim Moseley, publisher of “Saucer Smear.” Other guests include long-time UFO advocate Tim Beckley, who is known to some as “Mr. UFO.”

    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.

    HOW MICROSOFT CAN OVERCOME THE APPLE ADVANTAGE

    To some, Apple Computer is on a roll and will be unstoppable for years to come. Others feel the company is simply benefiting from the lack of vision of its competitors, and then it’s doomed to fail once a competitor gets its act together and figures out a way to overcome the iPod’s luster. In fact, it’s widely believed by industry analysts that Apple’s newfound success is strictly the result of the lucky break accorded to it by the stunning and unexpected success of the iPod.

    Maybe so, and I can agree that even Steve Jobs, who is clearly a true visionary with an intuitive grasp on what the public wants, never expected the iPod to attain its present level of success. But he isn’t alone. Try as they might, other consumer electronics companies haven’t figured a way to compete in any meaningful way. The iPod “killer” of today becomes the forgotten product of tomorrow.

    All this has to come as a surprise to me, though, because Apple doesn’t have a monopoly on hiring smart people. It’s hard to believe, for example, that Avie Tevanian, Apple’s operating system chief, is the only person capable of shepherding a development team, or that Jonathan Ive is the only talented product designer on the planet.

    It’s fair to say that Microsoft, for example, has a lot of smart people too. When allowed to create unfettered, they can do great work. If you look at the situation fairly, I think you’ll agree that the Xbox 360 has a lot going for it, even though it bears the Microsoft brand name.

    With all its vast resources, why can’t Microsoft deliver true innovation with Windows, rather than imitate what has gone before? It seems they spend more time patching security leaks than delivering compelling new features. Its development process comes across as unbearably slow, and getting products out on schedule is a near-impossibility.

    Sure Apple is a much smaller company, yet it somehow manages to deliver products largely on schedule and sometimes, such as its first Intel-based computers, months ahead of schedule. In a sense, Microsoft is the victim of its own success, its desire to make its operating system compatible with as many computers as possible. That decision may have allowed it to dominate the industry, but the end result is often chaotic.

    Apple is often criticized for having a closed design, its tight vertical integration of software and hardware. But in many respects, this is an advantage, because it removes many of the uncertainties of an open ecosystem, such as the one Microsoft supports. Instead of having to test its products against thousands of different computer configurations, it only has to support a relative few. Even then, there are occasional problems of one sort of another, but nowhere near as frequent as on the Windows platform.

    So what is Microsoft to do? Well, Intel does have its own reference hardware designs, but that doesn’t go far enough. What if Microsoft established a special line of top-to-bottom computer reference systems, from operating system to processor and all elements in between? It would license these designs at a price to various manufacturers, and restrict variations to case design and a small range of internal component choices to reduce compatibility issues. Each completed product would have to be tested and certified before the manufacturer could sell it with this special “Microsoft Certified” label. Clearly none of this would work with legacy products, and those who prefer to build their own PC systems from off-the-shelf parts would object. But it would reduce the number of potential incompatibilities, and the time it took to test new operating systems and updates before release.

    Would the third party PC makers who cherish their independence object? Most likely, but companies who depend on Windows to run their companies would relish this newfound dependability. Over time, the situation may marginalize some companies who refuse to get with the program, but the newfound freedom might give Microsoft a better opportunity to streamline its operating system development process, maybe even really compete with Apple when it comes to innovation.

    Eventually, Microsoft might even limit its operating system support to those specially certified products, and no others.

    The same holds true for MP3 players. Microsoft wants as many companies as possible to use its digital rights management scheme, but isn’t dictating how those players will look, or the features they’ll contain. Like Windows, the situation is chaotic, and you can’t always depend on things working correctly. In contrast, you know that the iPod and iTunes operate together seamlessly, on the Mac OS and Windows, and the conflicts are few and usually fixed quickly.

    I’m not saying that Microsoft has become a dinosaur, and that it may suffer from some of the same shortcomings as the American auto industry. Its dominance of the PC industry is not something that will end soon, even if Apple and Linux are nibbling at its heels. It’ll lose market share no doubt, just as it has in the browser arena. But as more and more Windows users switch to Macs and especially if the iPod continues to excel, Microsoft’s executives may wake up one day and find that time has passed them by.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: MULTIFUNCTION PRINTERS ARE GETTING BETTER

    It seems that every time I review a product, I begin by talking about the ones I used a decade or two ago. No, this isn’t simply a set of reminiscences by an aging hippy longing for the good old days. It’s often a good idea to know where you started to understand the progress that’s been made. Let’s take multifunction printers as an example. Around 1989 or so, I spent about $1,000 to buy a fax machine, one that used rolls of thermal paper. It was a big monstrosity, and pages sometimes got stuck in its document feeder. I had separate printers and scanners, and I spent even more money for the latter.

    In the early 1990s, manufacturers apparently first realized that these devices all had common elements. Fax machines scanned the elements of a document, and printed the faxes you got. Now take a standard inkjet or laser printer and you have the makings of a real space saver. Why buy three devices, when one will get the job done? Well, mostly. When you pack all of these devices together, there’s some element of compromise. The print quality may not be as good as a standalone printer, and scanning quality will be all right for a small business that has to capture text documents and photos, but not always acceptable to the graphic artist who demands perfection.

    To be sure, multifunction printers have gotten better over time. To put matters in perspective, I wrote a short review of a $500 HP “all-in-one,” the OfficeJet 7130, almost two years ago. My reaction at the time was that it did all its assigned tasks reasonably well, but was a somewhat slow printer and had flaky software. Well, the software has remained flaky, and I wondered how products had improved since then. So I had Canon send me its PIXMA MP780, which costs half as much as the HP, but seems to offer many of the same features along with superior performance.

    As with the HP, the Canon has an automatic document feeder, two-sided printing and promises print speeds comparable to a separate inkjet. Although there’s a direct connection on the front for a digital camera, the MP780 lacks slots for smart cards, a feature that is offered on the HP. No matter, since I prefer handling my digital photos on my Mac, using iPhoto. The Canon, by the way, trumps the HP by having a second paper tray, so you can have two types of paper installed for different types of jobs, or simply an extra supply.

    I don’t pay a lot of attention to advertised print speeds and claims of pixel resolution, because few devices with similar specs deliver identical performance. I’m more interested in the end results, and the MP780 is downright impressive in most respects. In doing some informal tests, I compared the unit to a regular Canon photo printer, the PIXMA IP5200R; the “R” designation standards for the networking option, which is not available on the multifunction device. Print speeds for both are commendably fast, and you’d need a stop watch to tell them apart. Output quality is close, but the IP5200R delivers slightly sharper text, and smoother photo printing. But you have to look carefully to see the differences.

    Like many Canon photo printers, the MP780 uses separate ink tanks for each color, and the cost is low enough that you won’t feel you are going broke whenever you have to replenish your supply of consumables. Scan quality was quite decent, though the software, MP Navigator, largely automates most functions, so you have to depend on an image editing program to get the best results. But it’s surprisingly good. I scanned a magazine page, for example, and the end result was clear, smooth and free of dither. Photo reproduction was quite respectable, thank you.

    I used to think that HP made the best multifunctions, but the Canon excels in most every respect. Compromises are few, chief amongst them the lack of networking capability. But there are potential solutions, such as using the Print Sharing feature under Mac OS X, or perhaps a USB printer server, which operates over an Ethernet network. However, the models that are Mac compatible, from IOgear and Keyspan, are not compatible with USB 2.0, which is listed as a requirement for the MP780. Keyspan promises such a model later this year, however, so there’s another possibility if you’d care to consider it. Apple’s specs for AirPort Extreme, by the way, do not mention which USB standard is supported for its wireless print sharing feature.

    But don’t let this minor shortcoming deter you from considering this model, which, at less than $250, is an absolute bargain.

    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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