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Newsletter Issue #408

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

My good friend Kirk McElhearn is a gentleman, and thus even when he’s mad about something, he understates the anger, yet clearly gets across his concerns. So when he told me he had severe reservations abou Apple’s latest mainstream iPod, the classic, you have to listen.

As a result, he was invited on The Tech Night Owl LIVE to tell his story, that such elements as the Cover Flow feature seemed to get in the way of his enjoyment of his huge classical music collection, rather than enhance it. Will Apple listen? Well they’ve already addressed some of the issues involving slow response, so maybe.

Then comes cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine, a soft-spoken man who has some extremely strong views to express. This time, he joined us to explain the reasoning behind his “Zoon” award, awarded to writers for blatantly distorting facts in their tech articles. Indeed, as quickly as he finishes one analysis of a prize winner, yet another story crops up somewhere written by still another candidate for this award.

In addition, SWSoft’s Benjamin Rudolph was on hand to talk about the latest update to Parallels Desktop. And, in this week’s Web Tips segment, Denis Motova delivered hints on solving problems with your Web site. We’ve gotten great reaction to Denis’ presence on the show. He’s incredibly knowledgeable about the online world, and his words of wisdom are always appreciated.

On our “other” show, The Paracast, UFO experiencers Jeff Ritzmann and Jeremy Vaeni (author of “I Know Why The Alien’s Don’t Land!”) join Gene and David for a frank discussion about the recently-concluded X-Conference and the state of Ufology.

By the way, David appeared on Jeremy’s podcast this week for a very frank, uncensored discussion about his viewpoints and what motivates him to do our show. I warn you, however, that before you listen to Jeremy’s interview, available for download via his blog (linked above), be aware that David uses language that may not be acceptable on broadcast radio and TV, and some people might find it a little too hot to handle. Just a word to the wise.

Coming September 30: Discover the secrets of the rarely-discussed 1948 Aztec, New Mexico UFO crash with researcher Scott Ramsey.

Coming October 7: Discover new information about the 1952 Flatwoods Monster case and the UFO flap from Frank Feschino, Jr., author of “Shoot Them Down! — The Flying Saucer Air Wars of 1952,” and veteran UFO researcher Stanton T. Friedman.

TIME TO TALK ABOUT LEOPARD’S SUCCESSOR YET?

If all goes as planned, Leopard will reach the DVD pressing plants in a week or two and arrive in the stores before the end of October. Sure, nobody knows for certain when until the official statement from Apple that the Golden Master version has been declared.

For now, I’ll assume that Apple will meet its promised goal. I have no inside information to present, and I will take the reports on the rumor sites that the GM is near with a grain of salt. On the other hand, if there are a few lingering bugs of any seriousness, Apple may simply get 10.5 out the door speedily, and then fix the rest with a fast follow-up involving a 10.5.1 and a 10.5.2.

Once the release hits the store shelves, you’ll read lots and lots of commentary over how well it does, and depending on the timing, we hope to have one of the first reviews that weekend. I’m guessing that it’ll probably ship with a special event on a Friday evening, and I would submit it’ll happen on October 19th or 26th. How’s that for an iron-clad prediction? I’m leaning towards the latter, by the way.

No, I won’t take bets, and I’m not using tea leaves. It’s just a feeling, and nothing more, but I prefer to concentrate on such things on our paranormal radio show, rather than in a tech column.

Of course, if you take Apple’s claim of 300 new features in Leopard at face value, you’re apt to think that there isn’t very much Apple could add to their operating system at this point to make it better.

More to the point, it’ll probably be early in 2010 before there’s a 10.6, if Apple keeps to its current operating system upgrade schedule without any significant change. On that score alone, I think it’s a good idea. While buying a new system represents a decent income source for Apple, even the most “benign” upgrades can be a source of frustration for you and me on occasion.

It’s not the operating system installation itself, mind you. Usually that process is pretty straightforward, and seldom trouble-prone. But you have to consider just what might be broken by Leopard’s arrival. Sure, most of your basic productivity applications may run just fine, but anything that closely touches system resources may not function completely or at all.

So if you cherish a particular system enhancement, you may just want to take a cautious path to Leopard adoption. But we’ll know better in a few weeks.

Meantime where does that leave us on the path to 10.6? Well, as I’ve said previously, I think every Mac OS X upgrade from here on will become a harder sell. Tiger, for example, runs so well some of you may be loathe to embrace Leopard, even if it’s faster, more stable, and has some features you may not feel you can live without.

Indeed, that’s Microsoft’s dilemma right now, particularly with Windows Vista. Of course, it didn’t help that Vista shipped as a slow, bloated upgrade with loads of incompatibilities. Sure, some of that stuff is being addressed with application and driver updates. But Microsoft may have to deliver a lot of good stuff with their SP1 update next year before people are ready to ditch XP, or are willing to stop asking their PC maker to downgrade new boxes for them.

When looking at the potential of a new system, of course, you want to concentrate first on what’s broken and can’t be fixed with a standard maintenance update, and also the features that are still missing or could be implemented in a better fashion.

Take the Help system. Now it’s supposed to be easier to search for the material you need in Leopard, but that doesn’t really mean it’s “active,” in the sense that it can guide the newcomer in a special fashion and empower them to better understand the best way to get things done.

I have long favored a Help system that can be preconfigured based on your perceived level of expertise. If you are a novice, or a regular user that’s still challenged by some of the more arcane aspects of the Mac, you’d respond to an appropriate checkbox in the Setup Assistant.

This is a setting that might be altered in System Preferences, for example, but it’s a starting point.

Now when you click on the Help menu, the kind of information you retrieve will depend on that setting. You may get simple, plain language guidance on fundamental system use, such as how best to navigate in an Open and Save dialog, configuring the Dock to best advantage, and making proper use of Finder preferences.

At one time, I also envisioned an intelligent assistant that would deliver a pop-up message suggesting a better way to do things. Some of you tried to shoot me down, suggesting such a move would be far too intrusive. Well, perhaps, but that’s what preferences are for. If you don’t appreciate interruptions of this sort, just turn it off.

I submit that the novice user would welcome a Happy Mac coming to their aid from time to time, suggesting a better solution to a particularly ticklish situation. In a world where we have a supercomputer on every desktop — or in your lap — is there anything wrong with the machine doing more of the work?

And if an assistant suggests that shortcuts for repeated steps can be instantly configured for you as an Automator task, what’s wrong with that? Automator was designed to simplify scripting for you, but it is still not used near as much as it should.

In any case, consider this just the beginning. I hope that, as time goes by, and after Leopard ships, your wish list for 10.6 will expand.

THE TECH NIGHT OWL: HAS THE WIRELESS PHONE INDUSTRY LEARNED ANYTHING FROM THE IPHONE?

Except for a few highly-recognized smartphone brands, such as a BlackBerry, or a Palm, and perhaps the Motorola RAZR or LG Chocolate, few wireless phones are easily recognizable. Take a casual look at the standard LG, Motorola or Samsung, and you will find few distinguishing characteristics.

Indeed, just the other day, I gave my sister-in-law an old LG VX7000 phone to replace her damaged Motorola E815. With a puzzled look on her face as she took the replacement gadget, “What’s the difference?”

That’s a sensible question. For the most part, the two gadgets look very much the same.

I tried to explain how one phone supported Bluetooth wireless headsets and the other didn’t, but her eyes glazed over. She handed it over to her husband, who got to the point, which is that he needed to know how to transfer his small contact list from one device to the other. This was something I had done for him before, so I repeated the task. After about 10 minutes or so of texting and navigating through absurdly-complicated menus, I handed it back to him, and that, as they say, was that.

Understand that the process of setting up a contact list is pretty similar among all Verizon Wireless handsets. They have enforced a fairly uniform set of interface designs that phone manufacturers must follow, apparently without regard to the fact that the usability quotient was minimal.

As they did with the Mac in 1984, in one fell swoop Apple threw out the wireless phone conventions of the past and delivered something brand new in creating the iPhone. Yes, touch screens are not exactly new, but innovation is often distilling what has gone before and combining it in a whole new way that, in this case, has been both praised and vilified by reporters who follow the wireless phone industry.

In competing with the iPhone, other companies acted predictably. Instead of showing where their products might be superior, they used bulleted points to compare features. This is the Microsoft approach and it doesn’t always mean a whole lot in the real world.

It makes little difference if one gadget has 50 more features than another, if the former’s advantages will largely go unused because they are too difficult to master by most normal people.

This isn’t to say the iPhone is perfect. Typical of version 1.0 products, it has its share of flaws and features that are not fully implemented or simply missing in action. Already there are growing wish lists from people as to what they’d like to see in the iPhone’s next iteration.

Some of those features, such as official iChat support (rather than a hack that aims to provide a similar capability), can be delivered as simple software updates. You’ll find a whole lot of these in the months to come, and it’s quite possible many of the iPhone’s flaws will be resolved in that fashion.

Other capabilities require new hardware, such as support for 3G networking. Steve Jobs claims that existing chips use too much battery life and they won’t compromise until a new family of chips largely resolves that shortcoming. Ditto for GPS capability.

Video capture? I’m not sure. You have the camera, and maybe just the right application will provide that feature without any hardware changes.

You can bet that Apple’s competitors are dissecting every last widget in the iPhone to try to imitate or exceed its capabilities. How well they succeed may well determine future directions of the wireless phone industry.

THE FINAL WORD

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

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