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Newsletter Issue #371

MOVING WEEKEND

All right, this may seem an idea rooted in absurdity. Our Webmaster, Brent Lee, who was thoroughly exhausted from his college work, decided to take the month off and recuperate. I decided it would be a great time to switch hosting services, to one that offered a competitive price with twice the bandwidth and lots of extra features without extra cost. Since a lot of our content is database-driven, this isn’t such an easy task. You can’t just copy those files. It’s more of a process of backing them up and importing the content into a new database, and larger files must be handled via such arcane methods as Telnet.

To me, the whole process is stupid and it’s high time that it is changed into something that makes sense to normal people, but I somehow stumbled through it, with a little help from the new service’s customer support.

Of course, everything is still in the testing stage, and I expect there will be glitches. For example, we had to close down the discussion forums at for The Paracast a day or two, so we wouldn’t have to constantly reimport the database before it went “live” on the new site. But I think we’ve got most things worked out so far, and I have hopes we’ll even get better performance in the bargain. I’ll let you know more about the new hosting company as soon as I’m certain they can provide the reliable performance we need for four rapidly-growing sites. So stay tuned.

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

So what happens if the machine stops? The machine? Well, on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, noted author and commentator Kirk McElhearn told us why he is really concerned about what might happen to the DRM license on your music and video downloads if the company you obtained them from goes out of business or changes its marketing plan.

Now you don’t expect Apple to go out of business any time soon, or Microsoft for that matter. But think about what might happen several decades down the pike. Today’s digital music formats will be obsolete, so how many years would you be able to listen to the stuff you downloaded before it can no longer be “authorized” to continue to work. Certainly you aren’t going to keep a Mac for 30 or 40 years, although I imagine some of you might, if you like to collect such things.

With an LP, a cassette, a CD or a DVD, so long as you have a working player, the recording will continue to play, if it’s in “playble” condition. It doesn’t need to “phone home” to authorize a new device, ever. So how is the industry going to deal with this ticking time bomb? Now don’t be paranoid about it, but that’s a question that has yet to be answered in a reassuring way.

Also on the show, Macworld’s Philip Michaels talked about the meaning behind the stock options “scandal” that Apple has confronted in recent weeks. You’ll also heared from Brook Stein, Senior Product Manager for MindJet, publishers of MindManager. This is a program that can help you organize your thoughts in a very unique way, and I gathered from the interview that a certain Apple board member, who is concerned about global warming, is an enthusiastic user of this application.

As to the latest episode of The Paracast: We led off with UFO investigator Dennis Balthaser, known as the “Truth Seeker at Roswell,” who discussed the 60th anniversary of the Roswell crash, along with plans to honor the event with a special festival. So what really happened there in 1947, and was it a visitation by alien beings, a secret weapon, a balloon or something we haven’t thought about? This is a subject that seems to just go on. We also talked a bit about the recent UFO sighting at O’Hare airport in Chicago.

In part two, we presented some fascinating and frightening tales of the unknown from paranormal writer Robert Damon Schneck, author of “The President’s Vampire.”

TAKING A LONG-TERM VIEW OF APPLE COMPUTER

In the business world these days, far too many companies are worried about this quarter’s bottom line, so they can make Wall Street analysts — a strange and often ignorant breed — content, along with their stockholders of course. If you tell them that your marketing strategy might not bear fruition for another couple of years, they might just sell your stock off and seek another avenue for instant gratification.

Apple Computer poses a particularly troubling company to evaluate in such an environment. There is no doubt a long-term plan in place, but they won’t tell you what it is. You can barely get information more forward-looking than the new product announcement of the moment. The rare exceptions include Mac OS 10.5 Leopard, largely because Mac developers need advanced encounters with prerelease versions of the operating system to make their stuff compatible, so the news would get out anyway. And, of course, it’s always nice to play the “Microsoft-is-copying-us-again” game to an eager press and Mac users who care about such things.

Myself? I don’t care who steals what from whom, so long as the final product works. And, despite what some of you may believe, today’s Mac OS is not completely original. The Window menu, for example, showed up previously under Windows, and some feel that the Dock was inspired by the Windows taskbar, although it really dates back to the famous NeXT Dock.

But that’s not the important thing, here. The real question is just what Apple’s long-term goals might be. Other than possibly an iPod phone, what other successors or enhancements should we expect to the iPod? Is Apple moving more into consumer electronics, meaning such things as high definition TV? Will the forthcoming iTV wireless media interface also include video recording and perhaps an interface that will make the people at TiVO jealous?

It should be obvious, though, that TiVO’s long term prospects are questionable. The company has never made a profit, and you wonder whether they ever will. Sure, they have first-rate DVR software; in fact, it’s so good that both Comcast and Cox Communications have licensed it for use on their own DVR set top boxes beginning this year. Or maybe they just didn’t want to get involved in a lawsuit over interfaces, such as the one Echostar, owner of Dish Network, recently lost to TiVO; that case is apparently under appeal.

But the real question is whether and to what extent Apple should get involved in that business or should they just license TiVO, as some suggest? That, to me, doesn’t sound like a sensible idea, simply because I think Apple could probably do better, and would no doubt want to integrate a digital video interface into its existing products, such as Front Row.

And where do Macs fit into this larger picture? Sure, the Macworld Expo keynote this week is apt to deliver some new products and some tantalizing hints. But at this point, you may think it’s all-too-predictable. The iPod phone is inevitable, although that’s still one huge question mark. You’ll also discover more new features for Mac OS 10.5 Leopard and maybe even a real shipping date; that is, if it will be March or April. If it will come later, you’ll just get a vague repetition of the previous spring delivery date.

As to Mac hardware, a Mac Pro with Intel’s new Xeon with quad-core processors seems a certainty, if only as a special order option. The other members of the Mac family were upgraded far-too-recently to warrant further changes right now. Well, maybe.

As you recall, if was roughly three months between the release of the last iMac G5 and the iMac with Intel “inside.” When it comes to Apple, you never know what will be obsolete and when.

So far, nothing I’ve said should strike you as surprising in any way. Tech pundits and rumor sites have been rife with all this stuff for weeks, including additional hardware, such as an ultra-light Mac note-book. If that’s all there is, I suspect a lot of you will be disappointed.

At the same time, you can’t expect Apple to toss out its entire product line for 2007 during one consumer-oriented media event. They haven’t done it before, and they aren’t going to do it now.

You will get some juicy tidbits, perhaps a few surprises. But the phrase, “the first 30 years were just beginning,” prominently displayed since last week at Apple’s site, shouldn’t be interpreted as proof that they’re putting all their eggs into one basket — or one event.

If the past is a guide, there will be ongoing events, every month or two, throughout the year, to introduce new products and concepts. Then there is this year’s WWDC, something few are talking about just yet.

The truth is out there, of course, being held close to the vest, as usual, by Apple’s executives. But the fun is as much in your expectations as in the realizations.

THE TECH NIGHT OWL: A FASHIONABLE, FLAWED BLUETOOTH HEADSET FROM NOKIA

I have been mildly frustrated in my quest for the perfect Bluetooth headset for my cell phone, or at least one that doesn’t call attention to itself. As I wrote in a previous issue, my quest began modestly enough when I evaluated a Motorola HS850 for a few weeks, then had to turn it back. It seemed to operate well enough, but it was made for larger ears than I possessed.

The Motorola H700, a newer and tinier model, seemed a superior candidate, though I had to go through two samples to get one that worked right. It fits my ear reasonably well, controls are well-positioned and easily accessed, but audio quality at the other end of the call seems to vary. Most times, it is quite good, but lately I’ve heard a few complaints, though it may just be the connection. It’s not easy to know which.

Then there is that Jabra JX-10, a tiny, elegant gadget with mostly great reviews, which had its own problems. One purchased sample and another from the manufacturer failed quickly. A third unit seems to operate pretty well, but has some design flaws, such as ultra-tiny volume controls that people with normal hands cannot use without great difficulty. It also feels a tad loose on my ears, a problem remedied by squeezing the rubber-covered wire ear hook. It does go about its tasks well, with crisp, clean voice quality.

Into this expanding group comes the Nokia BH-800, another European-inspired fashion statement, and it surely has lots of good things going for it. But it also has a few flaws you should know about.

First the good things.

The BH-800 is tiny, sleek and comes packed in a fancy cardboard case, not dissimilar to one that would carry a small necklace or bracelet. I suppose this is meant to justify its high price, $179, although you can get it for less than $100 if you shop around a little. It also comes with a thin chain that you can use to carry the thing around your neck. I mean, they are going all out here, except for the fact that Nokia should have placed a little more emphasis on usability.

To be fair, it’s a neat looking device, and you can get one in black or silver/white. The main multifunction device is a small, square button at the rear of the unit, and it’s not always a natural reach. At the bottom is a super-tiny rocker button for volume, also awkward to the touch.

To turn on the unit, you have to click and hold a button at the rear of the device until the activity light turns on. According to Nokia’s instructions, you can just insert it into your ear, or use the supplied ear hook.

After pairing it with my Motorola RAZR V3c, I gave it a brief run. Sound quality was quite good, though the headset seemed to have occasional problems recognizing my voice dialing commands. The ear hook goes into a plastic holder, which can be rotated to better orient the hook around your ear. While it’s easy to position the BH-800’s mic, at the front, to line up with your mouth, the holder moves too easily out of position, so you end up having to realign the unit for best sound.

Worse, the multifunction control doesn’t seem to support Call Waiting, or at least every effort with a quick push or a push and hold failed to switch the call. The instructions mention nothing about it, alas. Even if the headset was otherwise perfect — which it is — this defect can be a show-stopper. I await further illumination from Nokia’s PR people or one of our readers about whether this feature works or not.

To be fair to Nokia, I gather this is the sort of gadget that takes a while to get used to, and I will give it a fair shake just to be certain about the flaws. But for now, my quest for the ultimate Bluetooth headset continues.

Unfortunately, none of these headsets will fix a prevailing and serious defect in the Motorola RAZR V3c and other variants of this fashionable wireless phone. For some reason, Motorola has installed an external button with the ability to switch between answering tones, ranging from silence, to vibrating and “Master Volume,” which delivers the standard rings. It’s just too easy to push up against the phone, even if it’s installed in a case, and switch the setting to the wrong mode, which means you can miss important calls if the ringer is accidentally turned off.

I can’t imagine how someone in Motorola’s engineering group allowed this ever-irritating bug loose, and I wonder why others haven’t been complaining loudly about this stupid “feature.”

THE FINAL WORD

The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.

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