• Newsletter Issue #349

    August 7th, 2006

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE UPDATE

    What’s the stuff of nightmares? Imagine, for example, that you experienced nightly images of a strange light in your room from the age of five through nine. And then it abruptly vanished, only to be replaced, a few years later, by other experiences equally as frightening, and all downright weird.

    Indeed, when David Biedny and I decided to do The Paracast, we expected the strange and the unknown, from ghost stories to reports of strange objects in the skies. We’ve surely gotten our fill, we thought, and heard just about everything. Then, on David’s recommendation, we agreed to invite Jeff Ritzmann on the show. You’ll hear what he has to say on the August 8, 2006 episode.

    But I warn you: Keep your lights on when you hear what he has to say.

    Now we do have another show, The Tech Night Owl LIVE, which is far more mundane, at least most of the time. On last week’s episode, for example, we talked about back-to-school gear with Steve “Mr. Gadget” Kruschen. And, surprisingly, not all of it was electronic. We also had industry analyst Ross Rubin, from the NPD Group, was on hand to talk about Microsoft’s forthcoming “Zune” media player and other issues. Leander Kahney, from Wired News, joined us to talk about allegations that iPods are produced by slave-labor in Chinese factories and other matters.

    Coming up this week will be a review of all the news that will emanate from the WWDC, where we plan to have on-the-spot interviews

    I’d also like to invite all of you to visit our new Tech Night Owl LIVE forums and check out a special section we’ve added covering Apple War Stories. You’re invited to participate with your own tales of woe or even your positive experiences.

    THE PRE-WWDC RANT: IS APPLE LOSING ITS MOJO?

    You've got to go inside to hear the news!

    All right, now that the obligatory WWDC 06 photo is present and accounted for, let’s get into the meat of this week’s newsletter rant.

    First, and how can I put this gently, without sounding sensationalist? Well, let’s not be gentle at all, let me just put my cards on the table here. You see, when a person or company becomes a “star” in the public mind, every little thing they do is put under the microscope. Minor missteps morph into major catastrophes, just as quickly as a few good things blossom into major accomplishments.

    Now on the eve of a very major scheduled event for Apple, the financial community was ravishing over stories about alleged financial shenanigans, about back-dated stock options and that sort of thing. At worst, it means Apple might be forced to restate profits for the past 15 quarters, which could be a major catastrophe, or maybe not, if it’s just a few million here and there. No, folks, I’m not going to even attempt to figure out the impact to Apple’s stock, stockholders and its executives.

    There are other issues that might have more immediate consequences to those of us who reside in the real world. Depending on your point of view about using cheap, Third World laborers to build electronics, that recent flap about unsavory working conditions at a plant building iPods may be a reason to be concerned.

    In practice, the situation may not be as clear cut. For one thing, even the low wages these workers receive for assembling consumer electronics may be a whole lot more than they can get elsewhere.

    But there’s no excuse for slave labor. Apple may be the whipping boy here, if the charges are true, but the plants in which their gear is assembled are the same plants building the competition’s products. So is iRiver less guilty, because it can’t sell as many music players?

    The other issue is whether or not Apple’s quality control has taken a nosedive. Its high profile captures attention, once again, to even minor bugs, and if there’s even a hint of a serious product defect, things can really grow out of all proportion.

    Take the long-standing claims that the iPod nano is more prone to scratching than regular iPods. I haven’t observed that to be the case, but grant that others disagree. Apple denies it is using inferior or thinner plastics on the nano. Regardless, it’s fair to say a scratch on a smaller screen is far more noticeable. In any case, you’ll want to treat it gently, and if it goes in a pocket, use the case supplied on more recent production units, or buy one of your choice.

    On the other hand, the two Motorola mobile phones we have in the Steinberg clan suffer a huge amount of abuse, and the screens never scratch. Curious. Perhaps Apple should be talking to Motorola about such matters?
    Another ongoing complaint heard these days is that the MacBook and MacBook Pro have too many flaws. For example, there’s the issue of discoloring of the white MacBook, and bulging batteries and excessive heat on the MacBook Pro.

    But defects in Apple note-book computers are nothing new. Several generations of iBooks are involved in a program to replace failing logic boards. The infamous PowerBook 500 and 5300 series were notorious for various and sundry defects. On the desktop side, one generation of Power Macs was blamed for excessively noisy fans, and there have been various failures on the original iteration of the iMac G5.
    The important fact is that, once a problem becomes reasonably widespread, Apple will generally get the message and institute the proper repair program to set things right. It may take a while to identify the source of the defect and develop a fix, so be a little patient if you’re affected. Also be firm and persistent if customer service doesn’t give you the answer you want to hear the first time.

    However, despite what some suggest, I do not believe that Apple is losing its mojo. It may happen eventually, particularly if they screw up too badly and too often, but not now.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: REVISITING THE TELECOM BUNDLE

    After posting a message recently that I got a better deal ordering TV, broadband Internet and a land line telephone service from the local cable provider in my area, Cox, I’ve run across some people who opted for different arrangements and claim better results.

    One suggested that separates worked best, with Dish Network providing TV service, the local cable provider, Comcast, offering Internet, and Packet8, a VoIP service, handling the phone.

    But things weren’t quite so clear-cut when you look over the situation a little more carefully. For example, cutting the cord on TV service from Comcast also ended the bundling for the individual in question, so the price for Internet went up. Curiously, speeds were also reduced from six megabits to four megabits. Peculiar indeed!

    To make matters all the more complicated, cable and satellite TV all have different bundles of free and premium channels. Direct comparisons are difficult. The best approach may well be to make a list of the stations you watch, and look for the package that offers what you actually want and as little extra as possible. Ordering ala carte, however, is often far more expensive.

    Even after you’ve decided on the right collection of channels, if you have a high definition TV, you’ll want to see how much HD is really available. And, no, digital is not the same thing, because it would still be all or mostly standard definition. Worse, the satellite providers are only now building enough bandwidth to roll out local HD fare, which are generally available already by most of the major cable providers.

    So check the deals carefully.

    The same holds true for Internet. How much much bandwidth are you getting for your money? Those really cheap DSL offers provide slower speed, and the price often increases after the first year.

    The DSL provider will claim that you are getting better performance because you have a dedicated connection, rather than a shared network, as offered by cable. In practice, this may not be true, particularly if the cable service has enough bandwidth in your neighborhood. You may want to ask your friends what sort of service they get, whether they are frequent slowdowns, outages and so on.

    If you opt for VoIP for phone service, you will still want to have a land line or cell phone for backup. If you have a power outage, or your broadband connection goes down, your VoIP goes off the air. Fortunately, a number of the providers, such as Packet8 and Vonage, let you configure another number in case you lose your network connection.

    In the end, I do think a bundle is the best way to save money, and satellite companies are working with the telecoms to deliver the extra services, if the latter doesn’t have its own yet in your city. But shop around, and don’t forget to tell a company’s sales representative if a competitor offers a better deal. They may just find a “secret” promotion that’ll shift the odds in their favor.

    For example, when I talked to the local cable service, Cox, about the rate I paid with Dish, he did a little figure juggling and was able to get me a bundle of broadband, a land line, and TV that actually saved me a few dollars. The deal also included the HD DVR and, for the most part, it is actually somewhat more reliable than the ones provided, up to that time at least, by Dish.

    Alas, the picture is different from city to city, so be patient. No bundle is perfect, and support is almost always a question mark no matter which service you select.

    THE FINAL WORD

    The Tech 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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