• Newsletter Issue #382

    March 25th, 2007

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    Registering an Internet domain ought to be a fairly seamless process. Once you find a name that’s still available — and that’s not so easy these days — you set it up with a domain registrar, or a Web hosting company that provides this service. After that, you upload your site and get on with your life.

    Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be, but things aren’t so simple in the real world. Some of those discount registrars can hijack your domain on the pretense that you’ve done something wrong, and violated their terms of service. Worse, they may screw up the handling process in some fashion, and you lose your domain.

    Right now, there’s a time bomb ticking for customers of RegisterFly, a discount host and registrar that’s about to lose its accreditation. On this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, Larry Seltzer, eWEEK.com Security Center Editor, discussed the whole sordid affair and then provided information on how you can avoid getting ripped off by the company handling your domain.

    We also presented John Rizzo of MacWindows.com, who brought us up to date on the Mac OS 10.4.9 and the latest versions of applications that let you run Windows software on your Mac. In addition, Joe Trupiano, director of marketing for MicroNet, delivered details on their network-based backup and storage systems.

    On this week’s episode of The Paracast, paranormal investigator Jeff Ritzmann joined us as guest co-host, as David took the evening off to recover from a bad cold. During the show, Jeff presented his first reactions to our two interviews with contactee Jim Sparks.

    In addition, our special guest was Paul Stonehill, a long-time researcher who specializes in UFO cases from the Russian Empire. Paul is co-author of “Mysterious Sky: Soviet UFO Phenomenon.” In this episode, Stonehill presented key details about cases that have rarely been discussed outside of Russia. If you thought UFOs were restricted to the U.S. and Canada (and France), this episode clearly demonstrated that it’s a worldwide phenomenon.

    And, by the way, we do intend to cover the story about France’s release of a huge amount of UFO data online in a future episode.

    THE APPLE HARDWARE REPORT: HALF AN AIRPORT EXTREME REVIEW

    Most of you have read the first full-fledged reports of the 802.11n variant of Apple’s AirPort Extreme. I just got one a few days ago, and I’d love to give you some performance ratings, except for the fact that I do not as yet have a Mac with 802.11n hardware. That will happen soon, but I think I have enough to say about Apple’s new base station to write an interim report.

    The preliminaries are fairly simple: Apple has ditched the saucer-shaped motif in favor of something simpler and elegant. At first glance, the squared-off AirPort Extreme strikes you as half a Mac mini, similar to the Apple TV. Compared to the ugly and sometimes grotesque aspect of most routers, Apple’s base station stands out.

    As with anything that bears the Apple label, every element of the new-user experience is carefully thought out. The box is small, no doubt as a result of concerns for the environment, and the components are well protected against possible shipping damage. A tiny setup booklet, warranty information and a software CD come neatly packaged. As the product label says, the new AirPort extreme works on both a Mac and a PC, and the accompanying software delivers a similar operational experience for both. Of course, the Windows version provides an interface typical of that operating system, but Apple has always been able to teach Microsoft a thing or two (or three) about setup simplicity.

    One of the biggest problems afflicting the wireless router business is that most manufacturers haven’t a clue how to make the installation process simple for regular people. For the most part, they inflict an arcane Web-based interface on you, and eschew an easy way to establish Wi-Fi security.

    Apple’s product designers have an innate awareness of the need to set up a wireless router with as little fuss and muss as possible. The AirPort Utility application is the closest thing to a set-it-and-forget-it Wi-Fi installation wizard.

    To configure your new AirPort Extreme, simply connect all the cables and power the unit on. Now you install the software and, after restarting your Mac or PC, just launch AirPort Utility and navigate through the simple assistant, where you name your new base station and enter a password for the preselected Wi-Fi WPA2 security. There’s also a More Info button embedded in each setup window, so you can learn more about the consequences of your choices.

    This is brilliant, absolutely brilliant!

    In just a few basic steps, Apple has addressed the most common shortcoming of a Wi-Fi router, and that is that most of them run unprotected. That means anyone can share your Internet connection, and that means hogging your bandwidth. Worse, with a poorly protected network on your Mac or PC, it means someone can steal your data. This is particularly significant on the PC, where loads of Microsoft-borne security holes can make them remarkably easy for intruders to penetrate.

    Don’t think it can happen on a Mac? Well, imagine you are like most Mac users, and you’ve selected a password that is easy to remember, you may be setting yourself up for a catastrophe.

    The key, here, is that Apple has considered the basics that regular people need to know to hook up a Wi-Fi network. This may seem a trivial issue, but in the real world, routers are among the gear returned most often to dealers because they don’t work properly. It’s not because they are necessarily defective out of the box, but the setup process isn’t always intuitive, particularly when it comes to selecting the proper wireless security level.

    Once the AirPort Extreme is up and running, and your Internet connection is working properly, there is a large green status light. If it changes, say to a flashing amber light that indicates you don’t have an Internet connection, you can act on the problem immediately. Contrast this to the microscopic and largely uninformative status lights of most of the other Wi-Fi access points.

    As I said, though, this is half a review. I am not able, as yet, to test the 802.11n feature. However, there was one pleasant surprise that has made the AirPort Extreme indispensable regardless.

    You see, Wi-Fi reception in my home is a hit-or-miss proposition. I often take my MacBook Pro into the bedroom, which is at one end of the residence, while the router is at the other end, in our home-based recording and production studio.

    I’ve gone through several routers that promise greater transmission ranges and have managed to get between one and three bars on the note-book’s AirPort status menu. Mostly it’s at two, and when it descends to one, reception is spotty.

    As soon as I installed the AirPort Extreme, however, and checked reception quality, I was pleased to see the signal burst into the three and four-bar range. In other words, very little deterioration from the maximum possible signal level. This meant seamless Internet connectivity and printing. Even though file transfers are limited by the 802.11g protocol, they are usually adequate for my needs.

    Forgetting the emerging 802.11n standard, which promises up to five times the speed, the ability to set up a USB drive on a network and all the rest, being able to get a much stronger signal more than justifies the AirPort Extreme’s $179 purchase price. Sure, I’d like to have gigabit Ethernet support on those three extra connection ports, for example, but I’ll survive without it.

    And that’s just the first half of this review. Once my MacBook Pro is updated with an 802.11n card — something I expect to occur in the next week or two — I’ll post an update. Meantime, Apple’s new AirPort Extreme still deserves a both thumbs up as far as I’m concerned.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: THE SATELLITE RADIO REPORT: SOON THERE MAY BE JUST ONE

    The promise of satellite radio is huge, and the realization is mostly excellent. Imagine taking a cross-country road trip and being able to listen to your favorite stations with minimal interruption or reception issues.

    On a recent trip to Las Vegas, for example the wife and I were able to pick up our favorite broadcasts on XM Radio without missing a beat. Yes, we had an iPod onboard as well, but there’s something about live radio that conveys a feeling of excitement that’s absent in canned music. Even though a large portion of the content of my two radio shows is recorded, we still try to present it with the spontaneity of a live event.

    In any case, establishing such a broadcasting venture is tremendously expensive, what with launching satellites, setting up a terrestrial infrastructure and, of course, hiring talent. In all, both Sirius and XM have spent billions of dollars to make their ventures operate, and that was even before the first broadcasts streamed to earth.

    What with huge investments for exclusive rights for sports events, and such artists as Howard Stern and Oprah Winfrey, it’s no wonder the two satellite services have found themselves with huge piles of debt. Even if they realize a positive cash flow soon, it’ll take years to pay off those investments.

    With slowing growth and a less-certain future, Sirius and XM have decided to become one. That decision involves a $13 billion “merger of equals,” in which Sirius will apparently control its larger rival. It’s also opened up a large can of worms. Years ago, when the two services were being developed, they got FCC approval with the condition that they couldn’t merge. Of course, the makeup of the FCC has changed since then, and decisions can be reversed.

    However, that isn’t the end of it. Congress has had Sirius CEO Mel Karmazin — who will manage the combined company — appear before them to explain the details of the merger plan and how subscribers will be affected.

    While SEC filings and such have muddied the waters, it appears that the existing $12.95 per month plans will supposedly remain intact, and that you won’t have to replace your existing satellite receivers. Supposedly there will be ala carte programming packages for less money, and more expensive packages that will provide the best of both services. So you could, for example, hear both Howard Stern and fellow shock jocks Opie and Anthony on the same network, if that’s what you want.

    But it’s not so simple. Even if the FCC and Department of Justice approve the deal without lots of crippling conditions, there’s the question of how two incompatible systems will be integrated so that you and I don’t have to toss out those satellite receivers to receive broadcasts from both services. One issue is the capacity of the satellites themselves, which are already filled to capacity. A possible solution is to provide greater compression to the audio signal, which means that sound quality, which is now somewhat better than regular FM, would deteriorate. Or maybe not, if the compression was done more efficiently, but you won’t know till it happens.

    Even if the high fidelity audio of satellite radio becomes less high, it’s quite possible that the powers-that-be are willing to trade off a little here and there in the belief that only a few listeners will know — or care about — the difference.

    Unfortunately, and despite assurances to the contrary, it appears that the millions of customers who bought into these systems are the ones who will suffer if this deal — which may be a move of ultimate desperation — comes to fruition. Worse, if the deal fails, the two companies will have to bear the image of failure, and that’s going to make it even harder for them to prosper on the long haul if they are forced to continue to function as separate companies.

    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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