I originally get into tech writing when I was working as a message board moderator over at AOL in the days when it was a Mac-friendly service, and that seems like a century ago the way things have changed since then.
In a sense things have come full circle in one respect. You see, one of the most popular features of our paranormal radio show, The Paracast is — you guessed it — our discussion forums. It all started off rather slowly, as such things do. But a year later, and more and more of you listeners have dropped by to express your own points of view. Debates, in fact, have become hot and heavy at times, but most of you keep things under control, which is why just sitting back and reading the ongoing discussions can become so fascinating.
As to the shows themselves: this week contactee Jim Sparks, author of “The Keepers,” returned to The Paracast to confront the questions he didn’t have time to answer during his first appearance. We can’t say that he convinced us, yet, of the authenticity of his experiences with “them,” but it was definitely an informative encounter.
David Biedny and I also presented Rob Fitzgerald, host of the “Dead Science” radio show, who talked about life-after-death encounters and his ongoing investigations into the history and the motivations of serial killers. This was most definitely a different sort of discussion.
On this week’s all-star episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, security expert and Mac networking pioneer Alan Oppenheimer, of Open Door Networks, delivered a blunt reality check about all the security fixes in the Mac OS 10.4.9 upgrade, and the confusion over Wi-Fi security.
In addition, author and commentator Kirk McElhearn introduced you listeners to audio books, why you should use AAC (and no, it was not invented by Apple) and other fascinating subjects. And, with a new version of his flagship Stone Works software suite out, Stone Design’s Andrew Stone brought us up to date on the products and the history of the company.
Over the years, whenever Apple is deemed to be among the beleaguered, the critics come up with some outlandish suggestions. One of the most foolish, as far as I’m concerned, is the ongoing call for Apple to stop building hardware and license the Mac operating system, so Apple competes head on with Microsoft.
You see, they theorize that Apple cannot possibly compete with the $399 desktop, nor the $699 note-book, and is thus forever consigned to a minuscule portion of the PC market.
Only it can’t really work that way in the real world, of which some of those critics don’t seem to be a part. You see, Apple’s income from its operating system sales is comparably small in the scheme of things. How many $129 upgrade kits would they have to sell to drive several billions of dollars in revenue?
Quite a few indeed, far more than the number of Macs that Apple moves into the hands of users. Assuming that Apple has two or three percent of the worldwide PC market, even ten times that wouldn’t provide income parity.
Now some might suggest that, if Apple really went head-on against Microsoft, it would succeed beyond our wildest expectations. After all, more and more people are fed up with Windows, with its unreliability, software conflicts and especially malware. They are ready for an alternative, and if they could install Mac OS X on their PC boxes, they’d switch in a minute. Just like that!
Such romantic ideals simply don’t make sense, as much as you might wish it to occur. You see, Apple isn’t competing against the cheap PC. It hardly even makes sense for those who do play in the sandbox, because they have to sell huge amounts of hardware to eke out a profit. Even then, many of the lesser players have fallen by the wayside over the years.
The real profits are made on the options that their customers choose when they click Customize at a company’s site. You can almost regard the entry-level boxes as loss leaders, or just enticements to suck you in, in the hope you’ll end up paying far more when you decide to add the features you really want.
But let’s look a little closer at the Mac OS versus Windows situation: If you could buy Tiger, Leopard, or whatever, at your local electronics superstore, and it would run on most any recent PC box without special and unsupported hacks, what then? Would Apple clean up the market, and send Microsoft out to pasture?
Well, it’s just not that simple. You see, Microsoft blows hundreds of millions — perhaps billions — of dollars on quality control to ensure compatibility with an endless amount of hardware combinations. That it manages to work fairly well in the real world is just amazing, because it’s so hard to do. Microsoft really has few controls over the way all those PC makers build their hardware.
Then there are the home-brewed PCs that make the situation even more problematic.
Now imagine if Apple had to add the infrastructure to make its operating system function with the very same hardware. Its overhead would go up tremendously, of course, but would it mean greater sales to recover that huge investment? Sure, Microsoft charges up to $399 for a retail, shrink-wrapped copy of Windows Vista Ultimate. But the fact is that most of its sales aren’t made that way. Instead, they sell most of their product on an OEM basis to the hardware makers directly, for a fraction of that price, by the tens of millions. That’s where the lion’s share of their operating system profits come.
So would the PC user want to shell out an extra $129 for another operating system?
Sure, such companies as Dell are said to be ready to offer Mac OS X preloaded on their computers. But if Apple took that approach, they’d have to offer the same discounts as Microsoft. In other words, instead of getting $129 for Mac OS X, the price might have to be cut to, say, $29 or even less per copy. Suddenly they’d have to sell many times more product to provide the revenue they earn now.
More to the point, suddenly persuading a sizable portion of Windows users to switch to Mac OS X is far more difficult than a few hundred thousand or even a few million over a period of a year or two. Microsoft is supporting a deep and entrenched market that would find it extremely expensive to suddenly move to a new operating system. In other words, it’s indeed the impossible dream.
That would be true even if they could install Mac OS X on the very same hardware. Forgetting the time it takes for installation, consider the cost of training, and the price of buying Mac versions of the software they use now, assuming it’s even available.
Sure, Boot Camp is surely a possibility, but why switch operating systems in the first place if they still have to run Windows a fair amount of the time?
So does it make sense for Apple to give up its totally integrated product line and embrace something new, something uncertain, and something that will probably never provide the same revenue possibilities? Not to me, but I suppose some people haven’t accepted the utterly illogical nature of such outlandish theories. So be it.
When Apple first introduced the iTunes Store — or iTunes Music Store as it was known then — it touted the CD quality sound of its offerings. These days, Apple is rather more conservative in its claims, using the phrase “high-quality AAC songs.”
I suppose that’s in contrast to “regular AAC strongs,” whatever that is supposed to mean. But there’s no pretense anymore that this is truly CD quality, although 128K AAC can sound pretty good in most situations. But if you’re a demanding listener, you might find the reproduction of, for example, acoustic piano, somewhat lacking.
Indeed, if you have spent mega-thousands of dollars for an audio system, the flaws will seem even more obvious, although you don’t find such gear in too many homes these days. Too bad, because at one time, it was the ultimate goal of listeners of reproduced music to come as close as possible to the real thing — the holy grail.
Nowadays, approaching the sound of live music doesn’t seem to be the cherished goal. It’s more important to being able to have music at your beck and call when you want to listen, even if it has to be done through a pair of $20 earphones.
You know, I once read an interview with Paul McCartney in which he said he most liked to hear music on a car radio, even if the radio didn’t sound all that great. Saying that, there was something special about the sound of an old AM car radio in the days when that part of the broadcast band was actually used for music a great deal of the time.
In fact, studio engineers would often mix their prospective hit recordings so they would sound just great on AM. If anything, the quality would actually suffer on more costly gear, where you’d sometimes hear the flaws and/or the tricks that were done to compensate for the deficiencies of the expected playback medium.
I recall watching a veteran mastering engineer at work almost three decades ago, as he explained the things he had to do to allow a “hot” recording to sound decent on a cheap record player. In fact, they’d keep such gear at hand to make sure that masters would play without skipping. It was as much an art as a science, and getting great sound out of vinyl, considering its limitations, was no mean task.
In our iPod generation, I wonder how many of you really care anymore. Apple chose 128K as the encoding rate as a decent compromise. The files don’t take an awfully long time to download, and sound quality is just good enough to please most listeners, so long as they aren’t hyper-critical. What’s more, most of the source material, mixed and homogenized to excise most distinguishing characteristics, wouldn’t benefit all that much if you listened with state-of-the-art gear.
These days, I even wonder whether Apple would find much of an audience if it choose to sell lossless tracks; in other words, tracks that were audibly indistinguishable from the original CD.
Indeed, as someone who enjoys superb sound when the right equipment is at hand, I have to mourn the loss of our search for audio’s holy grail.
THE FINAL WORD
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