• Newsletter Issue #429

    February 17th, 2008

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    When you get a representative from the world’s largest software company on a radio show, just what do you ask her, and what sort of answers can you expect?

    Well, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we talked to Microsoft’s Amanda Lefebvre of the company’s Mac Business Unit. Her topic was, as you might gather, Office 2008 for the Mac. Amanda is a personable woman, a great interview, and she has her facts down straight. But don’t expect an official spokesperson to stray from the company line. You don’t do that and keep your job, after all.

    So I didn’t talk to her about side issues, such as Microsoft’s attempt to swallow Yahoo whole. That has nothing to do with Microsoft’s Mac software division, and it really doesn’t matter whether the company’s employees like the idea or not. That’s a decision made at the very top of the executive ladder, and only the company’s leadership can speak to the viability of the merger and the consequences. And that assumes they are even fully aware of the potential for disaster if the deal comes to pass.

    In another segment, we introduced Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of the world-famous blogging tool, WordPress. Although Matt is just 24 years of age, he and his colleagues have built WordPress into a world-class application that has been embraced not just by individual bloggers, but by The New York Times and other major publications.

    Speaking with Denis Motova and me, Matt delivered a preview of the forthcoming version 2.5 of WordPress, which will support a number of significant changes that are supposed to address ease of use, performance and security.

    In another show segment, Intego’s Victor Bishop was on hand to deliver a Mac security update, and Macworld’s Rob Griffiths held forth on the final portion of the show to talk about the recently released Leopard 10.5.2 update, the revised “Take 2” software for Apple TV and other hot tickets on the Mac platform.

    On The Paracast this week, Gene and David spend an evening with the inimitable James W. Moseley, editor of Saucer Smear and his designated replacement, cultural anthropologist and UFO researcher Christopher Roth. This is going to be one rollicking session that will focus on UFOs in popular culture and other curious aspects of the phenomenon.

    THE MAC IS ON TOP AGAIN!

    That tired cliché states that little things mean a lot and when Apple removed the word “Computer” from the corporate name, many people understandably believed that Macs were going to be set on the backburner, letting them fend for itself, more or less.

    Certainly you had to believe the critics when Apple failed to give the Mac much play at the 2007 Macworld Expo, at least during the Steve Jobs keynote. Certainly the products were well in evidence over at their display booths. But no new models appeared.

    Surely something is going on here, and it can’t be good, or at least that’s what some of you no doubt thought at the time.

    Through much of 2007, Mac upgrades were incremental, to take advantage of new processors. Only the fall introduction of an updated iMac with a spiffy, aluminum case reminiscent of the Apple displays revealed any Mac focus on the part of the company’s crack design teams.

    So what happened next? Well, iPod unit sales were relatively flat in the final quarter of the year in terms of unit sales, but Macs starred big time, recording over 2.3 million unit sales, which was a company record. Yes, more and more people bought MacBooks and MacBook Pros, but the star of the show was, you guessed it, the iMac!

    Come 2008, and the major Mac product announcement, so far, is the MacBook Air. However, unlike other Apple note-books, a thin and light model isn’t going to set the world afire in terms of sales, except,  perhaps, compared to PC note-books in the same category.

    After all, a note-book computer of this sort represents a significant compromise in terms of lost features, such as an internal optical drive, wired Ethernet, FireWire and even digital audio. Forgetting the understandably higher price tag, you have to be a dedicated road warrior — or adore high fashion — to consider such a device. The tradeoffs, even then, may be too much to accept.

    Forget about using the MacBook Air as a desktop replacement. This is a true second computer that lives inside your note-book bag or overnight suitcase when it’s not being used.

    But does that really matter? After all, the Air has its place, and, in fact, it’s priced at a very competitive point compared to the competition on the Windows platform. No, it’s not a second-generation Cube in any respect.

    More important, it signifies that Apple hasn’t forgotten its core business. Even though the iPod and iPhone are going to remain significant money generators for years to come, the hub of your digital lifestyle remains the personal computer. There Apple has, after so many years of total frustration, begun to make genuine inroads into the Windows universe, and Microsoft is ending up second best.

    Of course, it doesn’t hurt matters that Microsoft shot itself in the foot with a large bullet in developing Windows Vista. First it was delayed over and over again, then significant features were shed. That doesn’t look too great when it comes to marketing the product.

    In comparison, just how much got lost in Leopard between the time it was first announced at the 2006 WWDC and its final release in October of last year? Take your time. Oh yes, the ability to use Time Machine to perform a wireless backup, and that’s a feature that may indeed return, and not just on the forthcoming Time Capsule backup device.

    Aside from the usual growing pains, Leopard has been an unparalleled success for Apple. At the same time, there is a petition afoot begging Microsoft to keep Windows XP in the product catalog past the current June 2008 deadline. That doesn’t auger well for the public’s true reception to Vista.

    Not that Vista is all that bad, mind you. It does appear to be far more secure than XP, but there are lots of concerns. For one thing, it’s a bloated mess of an operating system that requires hefty hardware to perform all its visual tricks. Was Microsoft in cahoots with PC makers to force you to buy new computers to run Vista, or was that one huge mistake?

    Or maybe Microsoft wasn’t able to lean it out and still retain a semblance of its original feature lineup. I don’t pretend to understand all the issues that turned Vista into a near-train wreck, but certainly it couldn’t come at a better time for Apple.

    Even though Apple probably isn’t making huge inroads into the enterprise market from the front door, it’s a sure thing they aren’t doing bad in the executive suites. Even better, when a company CEO goes to the IT people and asks them to support their new MacBook Pro or iPhone, they can’t exactly say no. Once they learn how to cope with one Mac, adding more to the network is essentially a no-brainer.

    Where the Mac sales will plateau is anyone’s guess. So far Apple has kept its real expectations close to the vest, with very conservative guidances for future financial quarters. But as more and more people acquire new Macs, something’s going to change big time.

    Maybe some day soon, Windows won’t seem so inevitable a solution for big business. It couldn’t happen fast enough.

    BLU-RAY’S HOLLOW VICTORY

    Media formats don’t last forever. Once a market gets saturated, the entertainment industry and consumer electronics makers look to improved ways to deliver content, so you can buy not just new product, but all your favorites one more time.

    I remember, for example, the great migration from LP to CD. Yes, I know that some of you think that wasn’t any improvement, but I’m not about to get into an analog versus digital war right now, although you’re welcome to express your views in our Comments section.

    In any case, the migration from VHS to DVD was more clear-cut. The new discs, the same size as the CD, provided video quality that was superior to that of broadcast TV. It’s no wonder it took off so fast, and today, you can buy a CD player for $40 that, for the most part, is superior to the $800 models that appeared at the dawn of the DVD era.

    But with DVD sales falling, and the hope of high definition on the horizon, the consumer electronics powerhouses came up with a way to put HD movies on a DVD. Unfortunately, as in the Beta versus VHS wars of old, they couldn’t agree on a single standard. Thus you had HD-DVD and Blu-Ray. The former was cheaper, the latter had larger capacity, and the movie industry was forced to choose sides, or just pick both.

    As of this week, the war may be over. When the largest movie studio, Warner Bros., said they’d settle on Blu-Ray come this spring, major retailers, such as Best Buy and Wal-Mart, got in lock step, and sales of HD-DVD began to tank. The main company behind HD-DVD, Toshiba, is rumored to be ready to write off the whole mess and give it all up, and they are said to be figuring out the best spin to put on their failure.

    In passing, it’s interesting to see Sony end up the victor in this case, considering the defeat they suffered with Beta all those years ago.

    So you can bet that there will be more and more Blu-Ray titles for sale and that players will soon become quite affordable, particularly when the second-tier brands get into the act. At the same time, it may be too little and too late as far as high definition content delivery systems are concerned.

    You see, movie downloads are destined to take over. As broadband speeds improve, and download systems become more efficient, you can see the trends in the air. Apple has begun to offer a limited selection of HD movies to Apple TV owners. Sure, it’s of a lower resolution than Blu-Ray — 720p compared to 1080p — but you won’t see much of a difference unless you have a TV with a screen larger than 50 inches. Even then, the difference fades unless you look real close, or you’re super critical.

    That’s one problem, and it will become ever larger in the months ahead as Apple’s repertoire expands. Right now HD movies are rental only, but you can bet the greedy movie studios are just aching to let you buy them too.

    The other problem is that a regular DVD looks pretty good on an HD television set. A high-quality set will do a nice job upconverting the DVD signal to the native high definition resolution the unit supports, which improves the picture somewhat. An upconverting DVD player will accomplish a similar task, perhaps with even better results.

    When you look at the “smoothed” DVD picture either way, it still isn’t quite high definition, but it’s good enough not to make the difference all that significant unless you’re blessed with a really large screen and the cherished 1080p resolution.

    Forgetting the specs, it is true that Blu-Ray’s picture is superior in nearly all respects. But is it going to be so much better that you’d be willing spring for another player and then spend a bundle to upgrade your video library? The movie industry hopes the answer is yes, but that can take years to accomplish. Meantime, the downloading services will develop more efficient ways to deliver the files to you, and, in time, all will have products of comparable quality, and you won’t need a player or a physical disc.

    Is that where the industry is going? Is it possible that the final solution to the high definition DVD format war will come too late to make much of a difference? That might be a sick joke for Sony and other Blu-Ray supporters to swallow, but it may well be true. Then again, having the physical DVD with all the extras, including the director’s cut, special features and all the rest, still makes the medium far superior to the downloadable version.

    At least for now. But the clock is ticking.

    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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    8 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #429”

    1. Dana Sutton says:

      I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for downloading to replace the DVD as the major medium for film distribution. The bottleneck is Net speed and capacity. For this to work, ISPs have to be willing to make the capital investment to modernize our limited and overburdened Net infrastructure, and so far it looks like they are more interested in resorting the band-aid approach of rationing bandwidth (“capping”). And it might be hard to convince them to make the investment when it would be the Hollywood studios that would reap most of the profit. I suspect if you were to by a Blu-Ray today you’ll get years of enjoyment out of it before it’s time to put it in the attic.

    2. Al says:

      So far, I’m staying with good ole DVD, my one concession being the purchase of an upconverting player. The largest set at home is a 50 incher so I don’t see the need to purchase an expensive Bluray player and expensive Bluray movies. I’ll get Bluray when a) Bluray prices go down to more reasonable (i.e. DVD-like) levels and b) my DVD player breaks down. I wonder how many people are making the same calculations.

    3. Synthmeister says:

      Three things, about the future of downloads. First, I agree with the previous poster, download speed is just not there yet for widespread HD downloads. Heck, Apple doesn’t even offer the options to buy HD-Downloads and I think it will be at least 5 years before download speeds are up to snuff.
      Second, even if the speed was there, who wants to keep multi GB files of their movies on their hard drive where it will be hard to back them up because of the DRM? I know when I start buying HD movies that I’m going to want a fairly robust hard copy of my HD file. Does anyone even offer that option yet for HD downloads?
      Third, 1080p is going to be the standard for the next 10 years. Sure, depending on your gear, you may not be able to tell the difference between 720p and 1080p, but why would anyone limit the potential quality available when buying an HD copy of their favorite movies? When renting a movie, I might settle for lower quality, but if I’m going to buy it, I’ll definitely spring for the higher quality version and I think most people who think about it for a few seconds, will do the exact same thing. (Unless, the studios offer HD downloads at a much cheaper price than BR-Discs””yea, right.)
      I do agree with you about one thing. Except for video snobs, most people, will not bother to replace most of their DVDs with BR DVDs. The studios will not have the luxury of the “transition income” this time like they did with the transition from VHS to DVD.

    4. Ben says:

      I grabbed a Toshiba HD-DVD (HD-A30) player for $149 a few weeks ago. Why? Well, I knew that Bluray would win out and that at some time these babys would be selling for next to nothing. So I got four HD movies when I bought it (two came with the unit and two were my choice at BBuy), plus 5 more that may someday be coming in the mail, plus I can play all my older DVDs and they will be upsampled. I will be waiting for the stores to have their fire sales on movies and then I can buy the movies I want at a more affordable and reasonable price. Who pays $40 for a movie even if it is in HD!

      Bluray will be next when I finally buy a PS3, since it’s one of the players that can be updated via internet downloads and hopefully by then the movies will be priced just a little bit more than regular DVDs.

    5. I grabbed a Toshiba HD-DVD (HD-A30) player for $149 a few weeks ago. Why? Well, I knew that Bluray would win out and that at some time these babys would be selling for next to nothing. So I got four HD movies when I bought it (two came with the unit and two were my choice at BBuy), plus 5 more that may someday be coming in the mail, plus I can play all my older DVDs and they will be upsampled. I will be waiting for the stores to have their fire sales on movies and then I can buy the movies I want at a more affordable and reasonable price. Who pays $40 for a movie even if it is in HD!

      Bluray will be next when I finally buy a PS3, since it’s one of the players that can be updated via internet downloads and hopefully by then the movies will be priced just a little bit more than regular DVDs.

      Knowing that it is a dead device, and just using it to accumulate closeout movies makes a lot of sense, particularly for the price. You’ll probably get that back on the flicks you buy at a discount.

      Peace,
      Gene

    6. Gerry B says:

      I have NO intention of buying a Bluray player in the foreseeable future, meaning 5 years. I like keeping up to date with technology but the studios blew it this time with the artificial “format war”. Having bought a high end Sony LCD Bravia TV I was almost shocked to see how good standard DVD movies looked on a 1080p screen. I purchased an Oppo up-converting DVD player and will sit tight and look for content from cheap DVDs, rental and purchase, download options and as we all know there will a lot more HD television coming this year as the migration is complete in Feb 09. Having been around long enough to see LP’s as high tech (okay I was a baby) 8 tracks, cassettes, VHS, laser disc, come and go I know to invest heavily in any one media is not always money well spent.

    7. David Petersen says:

      First, Nice Article. Second That. I have both Blu-ray and HD DVD and enjoy both as if I was back watching 16mm films in my bedroom growing up. Around christmas time the rumors where coming out that Blu-ray was killing HD DVD so I thought the war would be over soon but then Apple announced the Apple TV 2 update with the HD movie rental (almost HD that is) and I started to worry even about Blu-ray winning much more than it has. It’s true about the downloading speeds not being there yet…but if DVD is still almost good enough and I can get great movies now for $5.99 all day long or rent as low as $1.00 day for physical media why spend $25-$35 on Blu-ray movie that was not that good of movie anyway (maybe an amazon sale gets it down to $15-$25 but only on some titles, not all). Now millions and millions uses iTunes to purchase content and now even rent every day. This will continue to grow until it takes over. I use iMovie to make most of my movies with now just becuase it’s so hooked into YouTube and my .MAC web gallery that I can just publish an almost HD movie (960×540) with the push of a button instead of -export-transcode-re-encode-make multiple bit rate different copies-publish to web site-build web interface or just push button. I heard it costs major studios about $50,000 to master and create Blu-ray Disc that includes a good Java interface or takes about five seconds to publish it on iTunes to allow millions and millions to just get it 24 hours a day. I do think Blu-ray will be around for some time but in 5 years when bandwidth gets up there look out. Any one thinks of stealing or ripping Blu-Ray better think again too since my current 90 Blu-rays average about 35GB of data each so 90x35GB=3150GB where 1 Terabyte internal drives still cost $279.00 each and then maybe raid enclosure or large case to support multidrive bays so cost today for so called backup of my Blu-ray discs 3x$279=837 plus case cost or external raid case. All I can say is if you have the money then live it up and get Blu-ray other wise I’ll see you on iTunes or at Best Buy getting those bargain DVD’s.

    8. RobInNZ says:

      Hmmm. Interesting. Love hearing the grumbles about volume limits. They are pretty much a fact of life here in NZ. The first ADSL plans were 128k down, with something like a 1GB monthly limit. Full speed was so prohibitively expensive that it was really a ‘company only’ option. Even now the ‘all you can eat’ full ADSL speed (if you are lucky to live close enough to the exchange) are ‘watched’ for overuse and get capped back to 128k if you over-eat; usually around the 20GB per month.

      HDDVD v’s BlueRay. This, to me, was a no-brainer right from the start. A dodgy half-baked, make-do solution v’s something that actually had capacity. DVD’s were too small 2 years ago, let alone now. And I believe that PS3’s with the latest firmware have excellent upscaling conversion on them. Better, supposedly, than many standalone players at twice the price of the PS3. Plus, of course, blue-ray built in. Plus, frankly, anything media-orientated that Microsoft have gotten their paws on needs to be viewed with caution. MS backing HD-DVD, to me, was the final nail in the coffin there.

      Me, Im waiting a year or two to confirm that Plasma IS in fact a dead tech, and that LCD is the right way to go, before the current SD rear-projection 43″ gets an upgrade. At that stage, LCD wont suffer as much from the smearing and high-speed motion problems it seems to now. Not to mention that 1080p will be far more common-place in reasonable price brackets. And they’ll likely to be OLED by then too. Even then it will likely be a projector v’s a flat-panel decision as well.

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