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  • Newsletter Issue #410

    October 7th, 2007

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    On the surface at least, the iPhone 1.1.1 update would seem like a good thing. After all, it fixes a few shortcomings with the hot-selling gadget, such as low volume, and also adds some features. What could be wrong with that?

    Well, if you hacked the phone to allow it to work with other wireless carriers, the update would turn it into an iBrick. If you simply added some third party software, you can forget about regaining those features unless the folks who were able to jailbreak the iPhone discover new ways to do their thing.

    On this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we called upon several experts to talk about the implications of Apple’s controversial update and other fascinating subjects. First on the agenda was author and columnist Ted Landau, who explained why he’s disappointed with the update. You’ll also heard from Macworld’s Senior Editor Rob Griffiths, who also revealed his findings after reviewing the popular methods to run Windows on an Intel-based Mac.

    In addition, industry analyst Ross Rubin of the NPD Group talked about the failure, at least so far, of the new high definition DVD formats to catch on. Has time passed them by before they gain any traction?

    Oh, and Ross also commented on the ongoing iPhone issues.

    And, in this week’s Web Tips segment, Denis Motova discussed the latest upgrade and problems with WordPress, the popular open source blogging software.

    On our “other” show, The Paracast, you’ll 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. Did the Air Force really order their aircraft to fire at UFOs? You’ll learn more during this provocative episode.

    Coming October 14: Researcher Dennis Balthaser discusses the mysteries of Great Pyramid of Giza. Was it constructed by an advanced Earth-based civilization in ancient times, or by unknown beings from the stars?

    Another guest will be announced shortly.

    IS THIS WHAT MICROSOFT’S MAC BUSINESS UNIT MEANS BY “INNOVATION”?

    To many of you, the Mac programmers over at Microsoft are the company’s shining stars. Although they labor within the confines of a byzantine bureaucracy and strangely wrong-headed policies, they are not supposed to be drinking the company’s kool-aid. Rather, they’re supposed to be devoted Mac users who have carved out a solid niche where creativity reigns supreme.

    Now that may be true to a large extent. I do think that the Mac BU tries really hard to deliver great software, within the serious constraints imposed on them by their employer. On the other hand, this also means that they live with assumptions that may not be entirely realistic.

    It is perfectly true that, in developing Office for the Mac, they have a set of contradictory goals. One, of course, is to maintain full or virtually full compatibility with Office for Windows. But, as they learned with the infamous Word 6 in the last decade, you cannot build a Mac application and make it look like you’ve exited Apple’s universe and entered Microsoft’s.

    We Mac users are quite demanding of certain constants, on of which, of course, is that a Mac application, for the most part, adhere to the conventions of the platform. In other words, it must be “Mac like,” to use the Microsoft parlance that implies a resemblance but not necessarily a reality.

    I am concerned whether they have really considered the implications of that phrase.

    Well, maybe it’s just a poor choice of words, well-meaning and all that, but typical of some of the concerns I have about Microsoft’s Mac products.

    With Office, you get what is probably the best that Microsoft can offer along with some of the well-known mediocrities. Typical of its Windows counterparts, Office for the Mac can be, at times, slow, and you feel it’s fat and bloated and filled with features buried so deep you’re apt to find them purely by accident.

    In recent releases, Microsoft has touted so-called “Mac first” Office features that supposedly trump the Windows version of the suite. Indeed, as Office 2008’s release date approaches, you’ll find more and more details in the accelerated postings on the Mac Mojo blog.

    For Office 2008, for example, there will be a page layout view in Word, supposedly to enhance its desktop publishing capabilities. Of course, I wouldn’t give up on Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress just yet, but let’s not forget that Apple’s Pages has always offered a similar capability.

    There’s also a thoroughly redesigned Formatting Palette. Instead of just supporting text formatting, you’ll be able to click on an icon to switch to other tools needed to work on your document.

    Of course, that feature is nothing new. Lots of applications have multifunction palettes of that sort, including the late, lamented FreeHand, and even Pages and the various versions of Nisus.

    The Mac BU’s innovative approach is to provide a Toolbox Settings dialog, sporting a host of options for the Formatting Palette, such as which tools are displayed and some thoroughly outrageous choices, including as how long it will take an unused palette to vanish. Is that something that’s high on your wish list — or even on the radar?

    Another blog entry touts the enhanced charting features in Excel 2008, implying that it has long been the only significant tool for building charts on the Mac. When I read that claim, I thought about the venerable DeltaGraph charting application that I first used way back in the early 1990s.

    Now I’m not about the compare the charts you build in DeltaGraph and Excel feature for feature, except to say that it is highly presumptuous on Microsoft’s part to want us to believe that you can only get the job done with their products.

    They also boast of the use of Quartz imaging technology for those charts, forgetting that have made similar claims for previous versions of Office for the Mac. So are you to interpret this as meaning that Excel 2008 will have a greater degree of Quartz compatibility than Excel 2004? I’m just wondering.

    I also felt a strong dose of deja vu when I heard the Mac BU extol the greater level of discoverability for their upcoming version of Office, as if to admit that they knew many features were previously quite hard to use.

    That is, of course, true, but that word, “discoverability,” isn’t unique to Office 2008. The Mac BU has used it before, so maybe they are conceding they didn’t get the job done for Office X and Office 2004.

    Of course, migrating everything to Apple’s Xcode to build a Universal version of Office no doubt gave the Mac BU a chance to take the suite on a healthy diet, to clean out the dead wood and work on all the features and, perhaps, approach them in a different way. Well, at least it sounds good.

    No, I’m not going to touch on the subject of the loss of Visual Basic for Applications. Innovative? Well, there’s talk that it’ll also disappear from the Windows version of Office in a future version, so maybe it is the start of a trend.

    In the end, it may well be that Office 2008 will be a terrific productivity suite, sleeker and faster than anything the Mac BU has ever produced. Though I’m troubled by some examples of their innovative approach, I remain ever optimistic.

    THE TECH NIGHT OWL: WHY THE AMERICAN AUTO INDUSTRY ACTS LIKE MICROSOFT

    Once upon a time, the American auto industry was king of the hill, worldwide, and nobody could compete. Even when the fledgling import industry arrived on our shores, most of those foreign vehicles were little, quirky things that couldn’t stand up to the punishment of American roads and driving techniques.

    Well, I suppose there was the original VW Beetle, which got quite a few sales in those early days. Then came the Japanese subcompacts from Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan), which were nothing if not miniaturized American cars.

    Without considering where everything simply went wrong, today the remaining American car makers are collectively fighting for their lives, while Toyota is about to become the world’s top auto manufacturer. In fact hundreds of thousands of vehicles from Toyota, Nissan, Mazda and others are assembled the U.S., while the domestic car industry is rapidly shedding plant workers and executives alike.

    Pretty much all the competitive vehicles delivered by GM, Ford and Chrysler have fallen short. They are never quite good enough.

    So where did the U.S. car industry go wrong? How could it hold a Microsoft-like dominance, only to watch it all fritter away over a period of several decades?

    Certainly, our auto engineers are as smart as the ones from Germany, Japan and South Korea. Surely the designers all have comparable skills, so why is it so hard, for example, to find an American vehicle that can match the smoothness, seamless design and reliability of a Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima or Hyundai Sonota?

    This isn’t to say that American cars are necessarily bad. They’ve come a long way in recent years, but it still seems as if the manufacturers take the Microsoft approach to dealing with competition, which is to make the products almost as good, seldom better, and then wonder why nobody’s buying.

    Where decent cars are developed, some of that ingenuity comes from overseas. For example, the Ford Fusion and its Mercury counterpart are based on the Mazda6. Ford uses Volvo underpinnings for its reincarnated Taurus.

    Over at Chrysler, the 300, which was a hot seller at one time, used suspension parts and other components from the Mercedes-Benz 300 series. No, it wasn’t quite as good, but it certainly resulted in a vehicle that had lots and lots of clever attributes, with probably as many serious flaws, such as poor outward visibility.

    Of course, Chrysler has been dismissed by its German parent company, and is out on its own, struggling to survive in a new competitive environment.

    So where is the innovation? Why are American cars generally regarded as almost as good in most respects, rather than better? It almost reminds you of the typical comparison between the Microsoft Zune and the Apple iPod. Microsoft tries to match Apple on pricing, ads a couple of features from a bulleted list, and they imagine they’re competitive.

    From interiors, to design, features, and general reliability, you may save some money when you buy American, but will you get a product as good as an equivalent Toyota, Honda and so on?

    Some suggest the American auto industry is suffering from its death throes. After experiencing huge losses amounting to millions of dollars, dismissing tens of thousands of workers and closing plants right and left, the executives somehow believe they will wake up one day and find themselves back in control.

    Whatever happened to the concept of building a better car, marketing the hell out of it, and then creating a buzz so people will feel excited to drive one home? Or is it just too late to bother?

    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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    16 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #410”

    1. Andrew says:

      The US industry lost the car wars two decades ago, and is poised to lose the truck wars as well should Toyota and Nissan expand beyond the half ton class.

      I bought a 2007 Toyota Camry for my wife this year, and this four cylinder family car is far quieter, smoother and more comfortable than any of the comparably priced V6 domestics. The domestics are a bit faster in a straight line, but just a bit, and of course build-quality, design and NVH (noise vibration and harshness) are nowhere near Toyota’s level.

      Even trucks are rapidly shifting to the import. I bought a Ford F150 this year and while it is a very nice truck, its not as nice as the Toyota Tundra or the Nissan Titan. Nissan and Toyota didn’t offer $6,000 rebates, but if they had or Ford hadn’t I would be driving a 2007 Tundra today. Is the F150 a bad truck? No, I wouldn’t have bought it if it was, but its days of uncontested superiority are clearly over.

      Where does that leave Microsoft? Well Microsoft never built a better product, so I don’t see how the comparison is fair. The American cars of the 60s were decidedly superior to most of their foreign rivals. Windows and DOS were never really superior to their contemporaries.

    2. The US industry lost the car wars two decades ago, and is poised to lose the truck wars as well should Toyota and Nissan expand beyond the half ton class.

      I bought a 2007 Toyota Camry for my wife this year, and this four cylinder family car is far quieter, smoother and more comfortable than any of the comparably priced V6 domestics. The domestics are a bit faster in a straight line, but just a bit, and of course build-quality, design and NVH (noise vibration and harshness) are nowhere near Toyota’s level.

      Even trucks are rapidly shifting to the import. I bought a Ford F150 this year and while it is a very nice truck, its not as nice as the Toyota Tundra or the Nissan Titan. Nissan and Toyota didn’t offer $6,000 rebates, but if they had or Ford hadn’t I would be driving a 2007 Tundra today. Is the F150 a bad truck? No, I wouldn’t have bought it if it was, but its days of uncontested superiority are clearly over.

      Where does that leave Microsoft? Well Microsoft never built a better product, so I don’t see how the comparison is fair. The American cars of the 60s were decidedly superior to most of their foreign rivals. Windows and DOS were never really superior to their contemporaries.

      The comparison refers to today’s auto industry, not the one in the 1960s, where American cars were generally superior.

      Peace,
      Gene

    3. Andrew says:

      But American cars haven’t had overwhelming market share since the 80s, except in trucks. In trucks the US dominated because the imports simply didn’t offer competitive products, and where they did compete (compact trucks) the imports cleaned our clocks as well.

    4. But American cars haven’t had overwhelming market share since the 80s, except in trucks. In trucks the US dominated because the imports simply didn’t offer competitive products, and where they did compete (compact trucks) the imports cleaned our clocks as well.

      I don’t disagree. It was a long ride downhill from the 1960s. A lousy pun, but 😀

      Peace,
      Gene

    5. Tim Harness says:

      Part of the problem with American car companies is the “Professional managers” have been able to over rule the car guys and the focus on quarterly results has had predictable results. Another hit was the phase in of emission controls hit heavy domestic cars disproportionately hard, which made imports look great. A last observation, in Kansas City we have to salt the highways every winter. Older imports are rare, mostly killed by rust and high parts prices.

    6. Tom B says:

      Detroit aims for where the ball WAS instead of where it’s going to be. Same for MSFT– but their monopoly power has lead to better results for them–so far. It’s been well known that oil production peaked in the 70’S, but that didn’t stop the Idiot MBA’s from pushing Monster SUV’s, because you can load more expensive “options” in a 40 K SUV than a much cheaper Escort or Saturn.

      I feel empathy for American workers, but, look, I can buy a Honda or Toyota MADE IN THE USA, instead of sending my money to Henry Ford’s inbred descendants. I mean, that Ford or GM some people might buy might have a V8 from Mexico.

    7. Gonzo says:

      The American auto industry is failing primarily because of the labor unions. People in the United States making $15/hr find it difficult to buy an auto from someone making $20-$25/hr. Even with financing. The unions demand that the auto makers (as in the latest GM negotiations) provide guaranteed job security, make somewhat outrageous demands for pension guarantees, and require that the employer provide health insurance for it’s retired workers. GM pension liabilities

      In the last two years, GM has had to infuse $30 billion dollars into it’s pension fund. There are still $54 billion in unfunded liabilities that they will need to cover. Let’s say GMs average car price is $20,000. They need to sell 2.7 million cars/year just to meet it’s pension requirements. The average sale price of a car would need to be closer to $40,000 to make a profit and probably closer to $50,000 to build it to the same quality as Toyota, and still make a profit. For that price, you can get a pretty nice Mercedes or BMW. Kinda out of range for the average car buyer though.

      Some of the other things that will have an impact: the idiotic regulatory climate that (all) auto makers have to deal with in this country, that adds to the price and takes away from the quality (and as noted earlier, impacted the domestics more heavily). CAFE standards, EPA emission regulations (okay, that’s not so idiotic. I like clean air to breath), the alternative fuels requirements (fuel instead of food?!?), etc. are all going to add to the price without adding to the vehicle quality. Since the foreign makers don’t have to deal with the ruinous demands of the unions, they’re going to be better able to make the changes necessary to stay competitive. The best thing the domestics could do would be, close their U.S. plants and off-shore their production, hopefully allowing them to cut some cost in order to improve on quality.

    8. Tom B says:

      “The American auto industry is failing primarily because of the labor unions. People in the United States making $15/hr find it difficult to buy an auto from someone making $20-$25/hr”

      I agree, also, with your point. It doesn’t help that US workers don’t have nationalized healthcare, like almost all other countries do.

      “CAFE standards, EPA emission regulations (okay, that’s not so idiotic. I like clean air to breath), the alternative fuels requirements (fuel instead of food?!?), etc. are all going to add to the price without adding to the vehicle quality.”

      CAFE is good. My big-a$$ Honda Odyssey ALMOST meets CAFE in spite of its size. My 2001 non-hybrid Civic gets 30 easily in mixed driving (I can get 40 on flat highway, on cruise control), and the CAFE is only 27.5. Oil is a finite resource– we shouldn’t waste it. If Detroit hadn’t been sitting on their tushes, they wouldn’t find even a higher CAFE onerous at all.

      I like to breathe, too.

      Converting food to fule is stupid on so many levels only W could have come up with it. Converting corn to ethanol uses more energy than it makes, raises the price of food, and encourages more production of a crop that’s relatively demanding with respect to its cultivation needs (water, fertilizer). Expect more sensible energy policy after january ’09, regardless of who wins.

      The future seems to be some kind of hybrid. E85 (15% ethanol) and biodiesel don’t strike me as winning technologies, though, I’d go biodiesel over E85, on efficiency grounds. America’s too spread out for greatly expanded mass transit anytime soon.

    9. Tim Harness says:

      If the domestic producers could shed the cement shoes of private health insurance, it would even things out some. But Gonzo shouldn’t blame unions, aside from health insurance, Detroit suffers from self-inflicted wounds. Investors have usually rejected innovation as too expensive, and sales are lost to imports with technology pioneered in Detroit. Off-shoring is a spectacularly bad idea, as long as we tend to elect governments that annoy folks, back to your history books!

    10. Kaleberg says:

      General Motors got out of automobiles as part of its creation. It was built by finance people who bought out dozens of other car companies. By the 1960s, GM was a consumer finance company (GMAC) which sold cars as a byline so it had an excuse to lend money. In fact, GM, and later the other American car companies, were quite innovative in their designs of leasing and loan products, financial repackaging, loan marketing, monetization and so on. They teach Alfred Sloan and his methods n business schools around the world, even today.

      Unfortunately, this left the actual design and production of automobiles as an unfortunate step child. The heads of the company were finance people, not car people. When they negotiated with the unions, they had no idea of what to negotiate for, so they stuck with the old frameworks. When the post WWII, late 1940s, plant became increasingly outdated in the 1970s, they didn’t spend what they needed to move forward until they were facing receivership. When they used political clout, they used it to defend their old ways of doing business, not looking at new ways, hence the resistance to CAFE and single payer health insurance.

      I’m not going to dump all the blame on Detroit. Private businesses optimize for the present. Only in rare cases, usually as regulated monopolies or with small closely held structures, can they afford to look too far ahead. Looking 20 years, or 100 years, down the road is the government’s job. We Americans have to be less reticent about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesars, and not expect the Grand Pompeii Fish Sauce Company to do Caesar’s job.

    11. Tom B says:

      “Looking 20 years, or 100 years, down the road is the government’s job”

      20 Years: we’re all destitute because Social Security went under and private health insurance now asks for $100 co-pays for a bottle of Aspirin.

      100 years: we’re all dead, except for a couple of Computer Scientists at Cal Tech who have uploaded themselves into Ray Kurzweil’s theoretical future computers that will work like immortal human brains made out of silicon.

    12. Dr. Dave says:

      Gene – I’m not sure that the US auto industry or its products were ever all that much better than their European counterparts. US cars were regularly bettered by pre-war cars from Rolls, Armstrong-Siddeley, Isotta-Fraschini, Delage, Voisin, Alfa Romeo (Henry Ford was quoted as saying that he tipped his hat every time an Alfa went by), Mercedes and others. The only time that US companies were doing better than the Europeans was for the time period you identified – 50s and 60s. That deviation from the norm took place because most of the European auto factories were destroyed in the war. For example, when VW restarted making cars after the war, only half of the factory had a roof on it. It’s not a surprise that they had some trouble getting it all back together.

      That said, I agree with most of the posters here that have noted that the current US industry is constantly playing catch-up. They seem to have forgotten that innovation is so important – if you’re not moving the state of the art ahead, then you’re falling behind. I also agree with those who have pointed out that US companies are at a disadvantage due to other countries’ advances in how to pay for the delivery of health care. I think I heard that the CEO of GM said their expenditures on health insurance adds $1500 to the price of every GM vehicle. In a competitive market, that’s a major problem.

    13. Tom B says:

      “I think I heard that the CEO of GM said their expenditures on health insurance adds $1500 to the price of every GM vehicle. In a competitive market, that’s a major problem.”

      Of course, now, thanks to Bernacke, the US Dollar is worth about the same as that stuff in my Monopoly game, so maybe the balance of trade will shift a wee bit in Ford’s favor, temporarily.

    14. alan smith says:

      MS aims for where the iPod was and then thinks that it is innovation to copy yesterday’s iPod. What MS and a lot of shill blog writers do not realize is the monopoly tactics used in selling computers with windows are not the same in consumer electronics. Sinking more money into something for the long term IS NOT going to give MS any more market share. Look at the bleeding sales and money Xbox. The Zune 2s are not going to steal anything from Apple, just from other players.

      Let MS hemmorhage money in the billions.

    15. “I think I heard that the CEO of GM said their expenditures on health insurance adds $1500 to the price of every GM vehicle. In a competitive market, that’s a major problem.”

      Of course, now, thanks to Bernacke, the US Dollar is worth about the same as that stuff in my Monopoly game, so maybe the balance of trade will shift a wee bit in Ford’s favor, temporarily.

      But Ford still has to build a better product. Being almost as good doesn’t work anymore. Even being as good, because nobody will believe them.

      Of course, that’s a lesson Microsoft needs to learn when it comes to the Zune.

      Peace,
      Gene

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