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Newsletter Issue #441

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

Why would anyone want to build their own Mac — or PC for that matter? Well, I suppose it’s all about the satisfaction of a job well done, in the same fashion you feel good after building a book case in your garage. Of course, when it comes to a personal computer, it’s more a matter of assembling prebuilt parts that are readily available for any of hundreds of PC parts outlets, rather than doing everything from scratch.

I can tell you I wouldn’t bother nowadays, but, as someone who once assembled radio kits as a teenager rather than go out and pursue sports-related activities with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood, I understand the mindset. Once upon a time, I might have done the very same thing.

Well, on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, Macworld Senior Editor Rob Griffiths detailed his “FrankenMac” project, where he built a Mac clone from off-the-shelf parts that can run Mac OS X Leopard. Now Rob is an old hand at putting PCs together, and while assembly quality was, well, passable, the end result worked just fine, even with Mac OS X.

Fortunately, nobody from Apple complained about Rob’s blatant disregard for their end user license, and I don’t expect they will. But a certain PC maker in Florida is living on borrowed time, and I am firmly convinced Apple’s legal eagles are readying the papers that will put their little venture on the ropes.

In a special segment of “The David Biedny Zone,” our Special Correspondent reminisced about the tenth anniversary of the iMac, and wondered whether it makes sense for Apple to produce a mid-range desktop without a display. As I said on several occasions, I had extended face time with the original iMac in the months before its release, as a member of Apple’s former Customer Quality Feedback program.

And AOL is back, with new Mac software now available to access the service. We presented an update on what’s happening with that embattled company from Lee Givens, Product Manager for AOL Desktop for the Mac.

Moving to another front, on The Paracast this week, we’ll feature a skeptical point of view for a change. In this case, a responsible, but skeptical approach to the paranormal from investigator Derek Bartholomaus, from The Independent Investigations Group. During this session, Derek will detail his long-term investigations into the Billy Meier case and other research.

HOW APPLE AND GOOGLE PLAN TO DESTROY MICROSOFT

Although this conversation probably never took place, I can well believe the scene is playing out as if it did.

One day, Steve Jobs and Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who sits on Apple’s Board of Directors, were having lunch and talking shop. In one of those fated eureka moments, they both devised a strategy that would, over time, consign Microsoft to irrelevance.

Apple’s part of this grand scheme includes those cute little Mac versus PC ads, where the PC is a slightly paunchy, overweight corporate type who suffers the slings and arrows of Windows and never quite comprehends the folly of his ways. The Mac, portrayed as young, hip and perhaps a little full of himself, tolerates the PC’s foibles with a bemused expression.

The message isn’t lost on customers, who are deserting the Windows platform in droves, with the numbers growing larger every single year. Where Microsoft experienced a flattening of Windows sales — which they attribute to growing piracy in the Third World rather than confront the real reason — Apple continues to flourish. If you can believe the figures, some 50% of the folks who buy Macs at one of Apple’s own retail outlets are new to the platform. That’s a figure, by the way, which has sustained itself for several years, as Mac sales continue to soar.

So Microsoft continues to experience a steady erosion of its once insurmountable operating system dominance. While it’s not a stampede by any means, the handwriting does appear to be on the wall.

Sure, Microsoft doesn’t always lose a sale when someone buys a Mac. A number of you buy get a copy of Windows to run with Boot Camp, or under virtualization with Parallels Desktop or VMWare Fusion. And Microsoft appears to be selling a fair amount of copies of Office for the Mac, though I’m skeptical that the 2008 version is doing quite as well as previous versions.

However, Microsoft has not yet signaled any intention of abandoning the Mac, despite the threat from the renewed platform wars. So far the sale of more Macs is largely a positive development for them, because it means more Windows and Office licenses sold at full retail, rather than at sharply-reduced OEM prices. Microsoft also did a good thing for their bottom line when they licensed ActiveSync, used to connect to Exchange email servers, for the iPhone. That will surely help keep costly Exchange license sales at a good clip.

Except for one thing, and that is the rumor that Apple might enhance .Mac to incorporate push email and online calendar syncing that will allow both Mac and Windows users to enjoy the very same capabilities. In other words, .Mac may soon become a direct competitor to Exchange.

Google is doing its share to confound Microsoft. Search and click ads are only part of the picture.

Then there’s Gmail, a superior free solution to the eternally challenged Hotmail service. Even better, Gmail offers larger mailboxes, IMAP and other features that are unavailable with Hotmail, even as an extra-cost option. What’s more, if you’re inundated with spam, you’ll find Gmail’s filtering system to be far more robust than almost any system on the planet, at any price, whether it involves hardware or software.

Building upon that base, Google next delivered Google Apps, which includes Gmail, a free Office software suite, and other features that provide the very same cloud computing environment that Microsoft is touting as part of its future. However, Google is doing it now, and it’s quite well done, thank you, even if the apps that compete with Microsoft Office don’t offer most of the advanced features of the latter.

What they do offer is great collaborative capabilities, which allow multiple users to log onto an account at the same time and work on the very same documents. I suppose that can become somewhat confusing, although it does seem that Google has managed to sort things out.

Just recently, Google leveraged the Postini email and Web security technology it acquired some time back to deliver something known as Web Security for Enterprise. The expanded capabilities help provide safer work environments for corporate customers.

Now you can get the basic Google Apps setup free, but the commercial versions, starting at $50 for annual subscriptions per user, include uptime guarantees, phone support and other enhancements, including the new Postini-derived capabilities. Indeed, all of our email, except for the newsletter, which originates from our Web servers, are handled via Google Apps. And we like it fine.

So how is Microsoft to react to these developments?

Well, right now, they continue to cooperate with Apple, although their efforts to acquire Yahoo in a bid to better compete with Google failed miserably. Or at least so far. There are unconfirmed reports that the Redmond gorilla might give it another go in the future if Yahoo’s turnaround plans don’t bear fruit.

I suppose it’s possible that Microsoft might some day prefer to abandon Office for the Mac, particularly if the Windows erosion persists at an accelerated rate. But then they’d find themselves between a rock and a hard place, without doubt confronting the continued wrath and risking more fines from the regulators at the European Union. That’s definitely not a good thing.

Worse, if the Democrats take control of the White House in 2009, is it possible that the U.S. Department of Justice might begin to consider more stringent examinations of Microsoft’s actions.

All in all, Microsoft is walking a tightrope here. As far as Apple is concerned, for now they will have to groan and bear it. Google’s competition is more difficult to deal with. It does seem to me that Microsoft hasn’t a clue what to do next with Yahoo out of the picture, other than to rebrand existing products under new names under the illusion that they are delivering something new, rather than just yesterday’s technology with a different label.

In the long run, Microsoft will likely survive and remain a serious competitor. But that have already seen the top of the mountain, and the long slide downward may prove to be unstoppable.

GETTING READY FOR THE NEXT iPHONE

Maybe it’s a mistake, or maybe Apple is officially telegraphing the forthcoming availability of the first major upgrade to the iPhone. But as I write this article, the iPhone is listed as “Currently Unavailable” at Apple’s online store. That is in sharp contrast to the usual “Ships in xx Days” that would appear if they were simply low on stock.

So does that mean you should rush out and try to find an available iPhone at your local Apple retail store or AT&T factory branch as soon as you can before it’s too late? Or does it make more sense to just sit back and wait for the situation to clarify itself?

Unless you truly need an iPhone right here and now, my suggestion would simply be to wait and see if things suddenly change in a few days, and then make your decision. It’s not that there is anything particularly wrong with iPhone 1.0. After all, it has been an incredible success, and it’s sent other wireless phone makers scrambling to deliver their inevitable imitations, in the same fashion as we had all those purported “iPod killers” before everyone realized the iPod was unbeatable.

The next iPhone’s basic layout is no doubt preordained. Apple has a winner, and no reason to tamper with a proven formula just yet, though they’ve done that before with the iPod nano. Instead, expect the promised 3G support and perhaps true GPS capabilities as well, rather than a triangulation method using cell towers.

The only fly in the ointment here is that these two features threaten to seriously drain battery life, even if the new chipsets are more power efficient. Apple’s solution may be to employ newer lithium ion battery technologies, or just try to miniaturize parts further to add space for a larger power cell within the same confines.

I don’t think that most iPhone users would settle for shorter battery life. Right now, it’s pretty decent, although it could be better. I’d personally be disappointed if it got worse.

At the same time, nothing would stop Apple from making some cosmetic changes to the case design, to provide a superior illusion that version 2.0 is new and different.

I also want to remind you that it’s very possible AT&T will exact a higher monthly data fee if you upgrade from their Edge network to 3G. That’s because of the greater data throughput, plus the possible higher bandwidth that will be consumed by the typical iPhone user. But I’m just taking a wait and see attitude about that.

Aside from speedier Internet access and navigation capabilities, the new and the old iPhones will essentially share all the other features, courtesy of the version 2.0 firmware that’s due out late in June. I can’t wait to see what sort of killer apps thousands of developers are working on as we speak. My personal needs are modest, though. A true AIM client would be nice, and AOL has already told listeners to The Tech Night Owl LIVE that they hope to deliver that solution soon, since it was presented during Apple’s original rollout of the iPhone SDK.

Obviously I don’t need concern myself about Exchange support, and I await news of the app lineup to see what other possibilities present themselves.

It would also be nice to be able to do simple editing on a document, and having true cut, copy and paste functions would also be useful. Enhancements to the touch screen to provide better feedback when typing will probably depend on upgraded circuitry that could appear on the new iPhones but wouldn’t be supported on the original model.

The real question, though, is whether I’d actually buy one. For now, the answer is no. I suppose I could pass off my existing iPhone to my son, Grayson, but I like it fine as it is, and I have more important things to do with my hard-earned dollars.

THE FINAL WORD

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

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