All right, so what does David Biedny and Steve Jobs have in common? Well, it’s not the size of their bank accounts, and I won’t get into the hair — or lack thereof — on their heads. No, it’s Keynote, Apple’s presentation application that many say smokes Microsoft PowerPoint and then some.
Well, on The Tech Night Owl LIVE this week, we entered “The David Biedny Zone,” where my good friend held forth on Keynote, and found lots of good things to discuss, but also a few things that he felt had missed the mark. Returning to one of his favorite subjects, computing history, he talked about some notable Mac OS features that had become casualties of the transition to Mac OS X, and ought to be brought back.
Denis Motova joined me for a conversation with Jen Grant of Google, covering their new Android wireless phone software project, Gmail, Google Apps and other features from the world’s largest search service. As some of you regulars already know, we moved our email to Google Apps recently. Although there have been occasional performance blips, as it’s a work in progress, spam filtering is awesome compared to all other solutions I’ve tried.
You’ll also heard Benjamin Rudolph explain the reasoning behind the forthcoming name change from SWSoft to Parallels, their future direction, the coming updates to Parallels Desktop and the introduction of Parallels Server for the Mac.
When I used to make regular pilgrimages to the Apple campus in Cupertino, CA for a press briefing, Steve Jobs would, on occasion, take questions from the media. Now the personable salesman with the famous “reality distortion field” can sometimes take on a hostile demeanor when he’s asked a tough question.
Take the time, several years ago, when Jobs was asked about plans to discontinue the poor-selling Cube. He shot back: “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” and went on to proclaim that Apple was pleased with the sales of its diminutive computer with fashionable molded plastic exterior.
As the press expected, however, the Cube was cut from Apple’s product list within a matter of weeks.
Now it may well be that Jobs really hoped that the Cube could sustain itself in the product line, but, in the end, he had to accept the bad news from his sales department that it just wasn’t successful. This may have represented an internal battle between his emotional need to replicate the original NeXT Cube and make a go of it in its second incarnation as a Mac. Regardless, Jobs is also a responsible businessman and had to accept the inevitable in the end.
It all goes to show that, even when Jobs supposedly is answering unexpected questions during a session with the press, the answers aren’t always believable. Most of the time, Jobs makes very limited public appearances in carefully-selected environments where they know they won’t receive any uncomfortable questions. If that’s an indictment against the CNBC cable news network, so be it.
The rest of the time, Apple keeps everything close to the vest, and only trots out a spokesperson or issues a press release to meet a marketing objective, usually the introduction of a new product. Jobs himself only appears when the worth of the product is sufficient to require his presence, in addition to the Macworld San Francisco and WWDC keynotes.
You ask Apple any question it doesn’t want to answer, and you’ll end up with the traditional “no comment” response.
Microsoft, in contrast, tends to be far more open to the press, but not necessarily more truthful. Bill Gates will frequently talk about new technologies that never seem to appear, or are released late and in a severely crippled form. However, few of the members of the tech press seem to ever ask Microsoft’s executives the hard questions about vaporware products and the company’s deceptive marketing schemes.
How often, for example, do you ever hear anyone express skepticism about Microsoft’s chronic complaint that it only wants to “innovate” when it’s facing a government complaint? What constitutes innovation in their world anyway? Copying someone else’s inventions and claiming they got there first?
More recently, Opera, which has a market share in the browser segment that’s almost rock-bottom, filed an antitrust complaint against Microsoft before the European Union. The claim was highly reminiscent of the one involving Netscape, where Microsoft was accused of unfairly tying Internet Explorer to the operating system and promoting proprietary protocols that failed to adhere to open Web standards.
In response, Microsoft did its usual song and dance when talking to the media who never asked the tough questions. They claimed that Windows users indeed had a choice, that they could install any browser they wanted. That, so far as it goes, is quite true. It’s also quite true that more and more Windows users have selected Firefox, or one of the other Mozilla browsers, and a lesser number have settled on Apple’s Safari or even Opera.
Microsoft also claimed that it was also adhering to Web standards, another claim that went unquestioned. Of course, if you ask any experienced Web developer, you’ll get an inkling of the convoluted steps they usually have to take to accommodate the peculiar needs of Internet Explorer. Indeed, we have a few special tricks in our code for just that purpose. Otherwise, the formatting of these sites would be messed up in some critical areas.
So where do we go from here? Well, certainly journalists aren’t afraid to ask the White House press secretary difficult questions about the war in Iraq, and even President Bush gets some fierce inquiries during his occasional press conferences.
On the other hand, investigative journalism regrettably doesn’t happen very often in the tech industry. Except when a company is actually cooking the books, or otherwise getting involved in such blatantly illegal chicanery, you can bet that lesser offenses will never be questioned. What’s a little deception among friends?
Yes, it would be nice to see Apple and Microsoft, and other major tech companies, get asked the hard questions in public, but it just won’t happen. Not now, maybe not ever.
To me, the definition of a personal computer is an appliance that is designed for individuals to easily master and use as tools for play and work. In the real world, of course, the PC, whether running the Mac OS, Windows or another operating system, has always been something that can take its revenge on you at unexpected moments, causing no end of frustration.
Now, there are varying degrees of misery, depending on your native and acquired abilities and the proclivity of the computer you’re using to suffer from problems of one sort or another. On the Mac platform, before the arrival of Mac OS X, you no doubt frequently experienced where were known as extension conflicts, where little programs that patched the operating system could misbehave in interacting with other extensions. The symptoms would usually involve frequent crashes, either with certain applications or no applications at all.
Of course, disabling the offending extensions would usually solve the problem, until you installed the next one, of course. In those days, many Mac users came to depend on Conflict Catcher, a utility that had a special test routine to help you find the source of your grief.
That, of course, was long ago and far away. The author of Conflict Catcher, Jeffrey Robbin, later became the lead developer of SoundJam, which was soon acquired by Apple and morphed into iTunes. Today, Robbin, who came along for the ride, is a Vice President for Apple.
In any case, Mac OS X, while not immune to crashes, is far more stable. Windows, on the other hand, is notorious for a lack of reliability and extreme vulnerability to computer malware. Of course, a carefully configured PC, where only a few vertical applications are run, may actually be reasonably stable and productive.
But most of you don’t work in the IT business, nor do you have an IT department to call upon when you’re in need. Instead, you’re forced to rely on your own skills, or, where possible, a company’s tech support department or a third-party support specialist.
Either way, most of you have become accustomed to your computer’s individual quirks, and they vary from model to model, and sometimes between individual production units. Yes, the Mac is far more predictable than the Windows PC, but when things go wrong, you still may confront a hair-pulling exercise — that is if you have any left to pull.
Back in 1984, when the Mac first came out, Steve Jobs and other Apple executives wanted you to believe that they were building a genuine appliance. Call it the toaster oven of the PC business, but such claims were not only highly-exaggerated then, they remain largely unrealized today.
Yes, it’s true. Most times the Mac indeed “just works,” but not always. Indeed, I do become over-confident at times, thinking that nothing can go wrong as I’m engaged updating my sites, or editing audio files. Then something might unexpectedly crash, or perform in an otherwise anomalous fashion, and all bets are off.
To be fair, it only happens rarely to me. I can go on for weeks and never confront a problem that requires a restart, let alone witness an application crash.
The reason that more and more Windows users are deserting the Microsoft platform is because they, in the spirit of that great movie of the 1970s, Network, are mad as hell and can’t take it anymore.
Now I’m not going to say that Microsoft is going to lose its dominance anytime soon, although its potential long-term success at the top of the world may become more questionable over time.
As far as Apple is concerned, they still have a long way to go before the Mac truly realizes toaster-oven reliability.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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