• Newsletter Issue #336

    May 8th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    The stories behind some of our interviews can be rather complicated at times. Take the one we did with Kirk McElhearn for our May 4th episode. As with previous sessions, we communicated via Skype, which provides much better sound quality than the telephone. Kirk, by the way, lives in a small town in France, and our studio is in Arizona.

    The interview was marked with a number of interruptions, although you won’t hear them on the show. Every few minutes, Kirk’s audio would begin to stutter, and it seemed as if he were just repeating the same opening phrase. He quit and relaunched Skype and even restarted his Mac with little change. At the end, we concluded his USB headset was at fault. The act of terminating the connection, unplugging and reconnecting the headset, then resuming the Skype session, would fix the problem. Fortunately, it didn’t take long to edit out the bad parts and stitch it all together almost seamlessly.

    But there is a way you can separate the first portion of the interview from the rest. During the first few minutes, both Kirk and I sound a little hollow, an audible effect that soon disappears. In any case, the real reason we had him on the show was to talk about changes in a French bill that threatened to force Apple and other companies with music download services to open up their digital rights management. There had been speculation that Apple was poised to close shop in France as the result, but now it appears the potential danger is past. That is, unless the French parliament restores the changed provisions.

    In other segments on the show, we talked with Dave Nanian, of Shirt Pocket, publishers of our favorite backup utility, SuperDuper. Steve “Mr. Gadget” Kruschen was on hand to talk about what he calls the “High Tech Home.” Sure we heard about the usual run of consumer electronic’s gear, but we also chatted about a water heater that doesn’t use tanks. High tech? Yes, but it may be indispensable, particularly if you constantly run out of hot water after a family member uses just a little too much for a bath or shower.

    On May 11th, we’ll be talking with Adam Greenfield, who will speak on the new generation of “ubiquitous computing.” And we’ll pay another visit to the David Biedny Zone.

    As to our other show, “The Paracast,” on May 9th, we’re featuring Dr. Roger Leir, a physician who has surgically removed alleged implants from people who claim to have been abducted by aliens piloting UFOs. Shortly after we taped the interview, Dr. Leir was hospitalized for a possible liver ailment, by the way. But we hear he is in good condition and we wish him well.

    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.

    CONSUMER REPORTS: AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY OFFENDER

    For a publication that engages in a fairly gentle brand of promotion, and is free of lurid headlines and huckster ads, you’d think that almost everyone would feel good about Consumer Reports. Add to that its reputation of being essentially incorruptible, since it doesn’t accept advertising and buys all the products it reviews rather than depend on a company’s PR department to send what some may regard as a “tainted version.” It’s also a non-profit corporation, which means that you can take a tax deduction on your donations to the company.

    So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, opinions about CR are highly polarized. The magazine doesn’t cater to enthusiasts of any caliber. Rather, its target audience is everyday people, which means that highly technical information is deliberately simplified so the audience can understand most of it without asking their kids to explain. This is both good and bad. Good because it helps people understand some of the elements of the sophisticated technology that overwhelms us in cars, computers and even vacuum cleaners. But it’s also bad because, in catering to its target market, CR sometimes goes overboard and misses or distorts critical information.

    So, for example, you may just adore the looks and performance of a sports car, but CR will downgrade it because the controls are confusing, you feel every bump, or passenger accommodations aren’t equal to that of, say, a Honda Accord. However, auto magazines will praise such impractical products to the skies, although some might suggest they are influenced just a little too much by the manufacturers.

    When it comes to personal computers, you’d think that CR would be an ideal place to spell out the differences between a Mac and a PC for regular people. But that’s not so, and I can see a bias showing, however subtly, in the way the magazine treats the subject.

    Yes, it is perfectly true that Macs get high marks for technical support and product reliability. It’s all based on surveys of the magazine’s readers, which makes it more difficult for CR’s editors to put any unfavorable spins on the results, but somehow they manage to do so anyway.

    Consider a few words on malware in the June 2006 issue. CR’s anonymous writers state that “Macs reduce exposure to spyware and viruses,” which is true that still isn’t quite accurate. So far, there is no Mac spyware that anyone has heard about, and we all know about a couple of proofs of concept and one tepid Trojan Horse infection over the five years Mac OS X has been around. The word “reduce” overstates the problem seriously. Maybe I’m nit-picking, but a past issue claimed that 20% of Mac users had reported confronting computer viruses in recent years. This goes against all known facts about the situation, but the magazine has yet to admit there’s anything flawed about its survey technology.

    My feeling, however, is that some Mac users might attribute system crashes and other bad behavior to viruses, simply because such problems are so ubiquitous on the Windows platform. But this is an issue that typifies the problems with CR’s reviews. Good things may be said about the Mac, but the reader never understands why they are different from a PC. Comparisons of the actual operating system and usability should be fundamental in helping readers make the right choice, but CR just ignores the issue.

    The June report briefly covers Apple’s switch to Intel processors, and the fact they can now run Windows. But it’s not explained what still makes them different.

    Perhaps they feel that such matters are too difficult to understand, but ease-of-use ought to be placed above and beyond all considerations of expandability and other issues that form the major part of CR’s product ratings. Sure Macs come out well, but how is the reader going to make an informed decision when most of the Mac’s advantages are ignored?

    Sure, it’s nice to know that Apple’s technical support is way ahead of Dell, but it’s not necessarily because the former hires smart people and the latter hires folks who aren’t properly trained to do their jobs. It’s a lot more complicated than that. One factor is whether the support person solves the user’s problems, and when it comes to a Windows PC, quite often they don’t. CR’s survey reveals that “only 55 percent of those who contacted free support had their problem solved.” Many seek out other support resources, such as an independent computer service company, an online discussion forum or a knowledgeable friend or co-worker. Or just try to figure it out themselves.

    That, my friends, is the dirty secret about the Windows PC. Many problems are simply too complicated to be solved over the phone, no matter how smart the person is at the other end of the line. Here the magazine does deliver some good advice about how to prepare yourself before you make that service call. The more homework you do in advance, the easier it’ll be for the support person to guide you towards a solution to your problem.

    Here, the fact that the problems one encounters on Macs are usually far easier to solve works to Apple’s advantage. But this is another important distinction that CR won’t address. Based on the surveys I’ve examined over the years, the magazine’s questions are often too general to provide meaningful information.

    Take a survey query about TV reliability. One question asks: “Has this TV ever been repaired?” All right, what kind of repairs are we talking about? Did the reader simply need someone to come over to help them to make a few simple adjustments from the setup menu to get a better picture, or did the power supply or image generation circuitry fail? The former is clearly more of a support than a repair issue, and a model with a more complicated adjustment scheme may be labeled as unreliable, even though it will provide many years of trouble free service.

    But to CR, simple is good, even if the poor reader doesn’t get the information needed to make an informed purchase.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: CELL PHONE MAKERS NEED TO TALK TO APPLE

    Back when mobile phones first became cheap enough for you to be able to afford them and the buckets of minutes you need to get sufficient talk time, I wonder if the companies who make these products realized they’d sell them in the hundreds of millions. Today, in fact, more and more people, particularly college students, have ditched their land lines and are living in the wireless generation.

    My son, Grayson, for example. His phone shares minutes with the rest of our small family, and some day he’ll be expected to switch to his own account, when his earnings are sufficient to cover the cost of service. Regardless, he makes it perfectly clear that he will probably never use a regular phone, even though it’s a lot cheaper for chronic talkers.

    Today’s mobile phone has more features than you can imagine. Speakerphone capabilities and cameras form only a small part of their capabilities. Of course, we all know about the “smart phone” that incorporates the features you used to find in a Palm handheld computer, and many models also double as music players.

    But with all the features being packed on to these products, the manufacturers have given ease of use short shrift. They often seem to have been inspired by Microsoft Windows, because interfaces for these phones are generally saddled with complicated menu structures and commands that are difficult to understand, even with the manuals at hand.

    Yes, if you are willing to spend a few hours with your phone, and are willing to test a few settings, you can probably figure things out, more or less. But I rather suspect most mobile phone owners confine themselves to the basics, such as making and receiving calls, and perhaps set up a simple contact list. Most of the remaining features go unused, or are touched only rarely.

    A camera? Yes, a fast snap shot, but that’s about the extent of it.

    When Motorola and Cingular introduced a couple of phones that incorporated iTunes, they ended up doing a disservice to Apple. Unlike the iPod, people weren’t lining up to buy them, and those who did found them seriously impaired from a usability standpoint. You see, iTunes had to be clumsily grafted into products with typically awful interfaces, and it’s clear the manufacturers really didn’t understand what they had to do to make things better.

    This is one reason why I’m sure many of you would welcome a genuine Apple iPhone. It would sport an interface like no other, something you can sink your teeth into without having to spend hours dissecting the fine points of settings that ought to involve no more than a couple of minutes to establish. Now I wouldn’t presume to deliver a wish list. You see, I’m too tainted by years of experience in the technology business, and I usually manage to figure out most of what my cell phones can do.

    In the end, however, I primarily use them for telephone calls. Yes, I access the built-in camera from time to time, but until resolution is sufficient for decent snap shots, and it can dock with my Mac as quickly as a regular digital camera, it’s not a feature I’ll use very often.

    Of course, with their billions of dollars of profits, the cell phone builders and services don’t seem to have any incentive to deliver superior products. Or maybe they are so strongly influenced by the complexities of Windows that they just don’t know there’s a better way. Maybe Steve Jobs will show them, some day, but I still remain skeptical that an iPhone will come in the near future.

    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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