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  • Newsletter Issue #445

    June 8th, 2008

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    Some people believe that the host is (or should be) the star of a talk show, and I suppose that’s true in some cases, probably too many cases. But I don’t consider myself a star by any means. I’m just a facilitator who brings onboard interesting guests who have something to say. They are the ones I want to shine on the shows I work on, although I will certainly express my point of view where it’s appropriate.

    The only reason these shows work at all is because a lot of people are willing to come on, sometimes with minimal notice, and spend lots of time discussing what’s on their minds at that particular point in time.

    I’m also curious to learn about other pastimes from a guest that might provide interesting conversation. Take Jason Snell, Macworld’s Editorial Director. As knowledgeable he is about the goings on at Apple Inc., he is just as knowledgeable about television programming. So I never let him get away without talking about that subject as well.

    As to this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I called upon Peter Cohen, from Macworld, to deliver his personal predictions about what might happen at the WWDC. But he’s also an avid gamer, one reason why he’s that magazine’s Game Room columnist, and he also provided a Mac gaming update.

    Author and musician Jeff Tolbert, author of two Take Control Ebooks on Garage Band “˜08, presented hints and tips on making your own kind of music with Apple’s entry-level recording application.

    You’ll also learned about Mac-driven home automation systems from Matt Bendiksen of PerceptiveAutomation.com.

    Moving to another front, on The Paracast this week, experiencer Stan Romanek presents what his Web site refers to as “the world’s most documented extraterrestrial contact story.”

    You’ll also hear the confusing, convoluted back story of just how this interview was finally arranged.

    Coming June 15: Discover the very latest news and views on Martian mysteries and new frontiers of paranormal research with cutting-edge investigator Mac Tonnies.

    CAN APPLE UPDATE THE OS TOO QUICKLY?

    When Apple acquired NeXT in the last century, the original release of the long-promised industrial-strength operating system seemed to take forever. First, there was Rhapsody, and when developers balked at having to recode all or most of their products, Apple went back to the drawing boards and begat Carbon and Aqua. The former made it much easier to port applications, and the latter delivered an enhanced Mac interface.

    But it took until September 2000 to release a public beta, and the supposed final version of Mac OS X didn’t arrive until March of 2001. Even then, it was far from feature complete. You couldn’t even burn CDs. How soon we forget.

    For a while, it seemed that new Mac OS X reference releases came at a breakneck speed. Only the first upgrade, 10.1, was free. For the rest, you had to shell out $129, unless you happened to buy a new Mac or, perhaps, an upgrade kit of the previous version within a few weeks of the new one’s shipping date.

    Between Tiger and Leopard, however, 30 months passed, and it seemed as if Apple had decided to take its time building new system upgrades. To be sure, Tiger had a flaky beginning and some suggest that only with 10.4.11 did it come into its own. Even then, there are still a few out there who will staunchly maintain that Tiger was still plagued with serious bugs.

    Despite its extended gestation period, Leopard’s apparent stability is a mixed bag. I regard it as about the same as Tiger, or perhaps a little better, and performance definitely seems snappier. But I realize others feel it’s considerably worse, and that 10.5.3 created perhaps as many problems as it removed.

    There is, for example, that issue involving saving documents created in Adobe apps across a network. Yes, Adobe says you shouldn’t be saving your stuff in this fashion, but a lot of graphic artists do it anyway, and 10.5.3 apparently only made matters worse.

    Yes, there are rumors that a near-term 10.5.4 update will address the worst lingering ills of 10.5.3, but nothing is certain until such a release actually appears.

    At the same time, there are growing reports that Apple is getting ready to take us to 10.6 in the very near future, perhaps as early as Macworld 2009. If that’s true, and I was one of the first to express the possibility of an early preview of Leopard’s successor at the WWDC, it would signify Apple’s return to rapid-fire OS upgrades.

    Should that happen, you have to wonder what sort of havoc a possible 15 to 18 month upgrade schedule might wreak. Obviously, those $129 upgrade fees can add up. Where once it wasn’t such a drain, when you can barely get two tanks of gas for that amount of money, I can see where many of you have other priorities.

    Yes, there are some claims that the 10.6 will be primarily a maintenance and optimization release targeted at owners of Intel-based Macs. If that’s true, it may not have so many new features, and it may, like 10.1 before it, be a free upgrade to users of the previous version of Mac OS X.

    The real question is whether it makes sense to rush out operating system upgrades as quickly as before, now that Mac OS X has reached a fairly high level of maturity. Other than giving Apple a quick revenue stream — and the first quarter of a new operating system’s release is where most of the profits are made — you have to wonder what motive they would have in delivering 10.6 earlier than most originally expected.

    It’s not as if there’s some sort of imminent release from Microsoft with which to compete. Windows 7, although already demonstrated in limited form, may not arrive until late in 2009 or 2010 for that matter. Microsoft doesn’t really do well with releasing product on schedule with all or most features intact, so even if it appears during that timeframe, it’s not certain what form it’ll actually take.

    As far a Apple is concerned, surely any critical optimizations can be done as a standard maintenance update for the existing operating system, and even if those changes are focused more at models using Intel chips, such updates wouldn’t abandon PowerPC owners so quickly. Can’t they be given a little more time before they’re compelled to buy a new Mac in order to get the latest and greatest operating system release?

    Or maybe I am just taking the rumors and speculation far too seriously, even though I’m one of the people who might be saddled with the guilt for starting all this talk in the first place. 

    You see, I am writing this article ahead of the WWDC, and it is possible the keynote will be over and done with before you read this article. So what I have to say may carry little meaning, because it will either be partly confirmed or proven to be totally off the mark.

    On the long haul, however, I have to wonder just how Apple intends to handle future operating system upgrades. If they are meant to arrive more frequently, why not consider a subscription plan? That way, you pay an annual fee to receive not just the reference releases, but the maintenance updates that can take hours to retrieve now if you don’t have a speedy broadband connection.

    This plan, by the way, ought to be considered regardless of the spread between Mac OS X releases.

    BLU-RAY’S BIGGEST COMPETITOR

    All right, so the high definition DVD battle ended early this year when HD-DVD left the stage. But it doesn’t seem as if Blu-Ray has taken off in any respectable amount since then, and you have to wonder whether maybe it was too little or too late.

    First, there’s no question that, side by side, the Blu-Ray disc looks noticeably better than a regular DVD, at least when you’re real close to the set, or have an ultra-large HDTV in your home. Either way, as you gravitate towards a normal viewing range, the differences become must less obvious.

    There is one more fly in the ointment, in the form of the upconverting DVD player. It contains a special type of circuitry that simulates the higher resolution of Blu-Ray 1080p, and thus delivers sharper pictures with regular DVDs. You can connect it to your high definition set via component or HDMI. Either way, the visible differences between the faux version and the genuine Blu-Ray DVD are slight, and perhaps not noticeable unless you look real carefully.

    The advantage of upconverting is that you can buy one for as little as $50, and you don’t have to feed it with special DVDs. In contrast, the cheapest Blu-Ray player at Wal-Mart, for example, is somewhat under $300 for a Magnavox. While that’s not terribly costly when you factor in the $1,000 purchase price of some of the original Blu-Ray models, that, plus the extra money you pay for the actual discs, make you wonder if it’s truly worth the investment.

    Now understand that the regular Blu-Ray player will play regular DVDs too, so you aren’t forced to replace your movie library right away. That’s something you can do over the long haul, if that’s what you truly want. But it’s not the same as the videotape era, where the visual differences were drastic.

    What’s more, there are other clouds on the horizon for Blu-Ray, and that is a pun, because I’m talking about movie downloads. Today, there’s not much in the way of HD content available. The ones you get from Apple are rental only, at least so far, but that’s apt to change over time.

    In addition, you can be assured that broadband speeds will continue to accelerate. Here in the states, cable services are beginning to embrace the new DOCSIS 3.0 standard, a multichannel technique to improve throughput. Already, Comcast is promising that most of its subscribers will be able to get download speeds of up to 100 megabits by 2010, and you can bet other cable companies will be offering comparable services.

    This means that you will be able to get your high definition movies far quicker. It may even encourage movie companies to provide online product that more closely resembles what you get on a DVD, particularly the alternate cuts and special features. That’s something that’s sadly missing in the movies you download these days.

    Now I’m not saying Blu-Ray is a dead end. Many of you still want the physical DVDs and as the price of players descends below $200 and eventually below $100, these decks may rapidly replace the older standard. The movie companies might hasten adoption of high definition DVDs by cutting prices to roughly the same level as standard definition, but right now greed is king.

    Don’t get me wrong. I am intrigued by the possibilities of Blu-Ray, and I hope the standard will succeed on the long haul. But several years were squandered with two competing standards battling for ascendency. That’s over and done with, thank heavens. But winning a battle doesn’t mean Sony and its partners, the inventors of Blu_Ray, have won the war. That remains to be seen.

    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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    5 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #445”

    1. Dana Sutton says:

      Maybe a 10.6 by year’s end is indeed too quick, if you look at from the viewpoint of the Mac. But Apple is now in the position of needing to juggle the interests of Mac owners against those of the iPhone, iPod Touch, and whatever other mobile devices it may have up its sleeve. Then too, what Gene writes assumes that this new Intel-only OS is necessarily a rush job. Apple may have had it under development for a long time, but didn’t feel able to release it until pre-Intel Macs a certain decent degree of obsolescence.

    2. Wayne says:

      Re: Blu-ray… $400 gets you a PS3, which is the best Blu-ray player out there, an excellent up-scaling DVD player, a media center (video, audio, photos), a web browser, and also a game machine. And it does 802.11g, so you don’t need to run any cables through your living room to connect it to the internet. Not bad for the money.

      (Many bluray articles mention $50/100 DVD players, but I wonder how applicable that price-point is considering that upscaling is only meaningful if you have a fairly large, fairly high-res screen and those are NOT cheap. Once you’re spending $1,200 or more on the screen, $400 for a player — especially one as capable as the PS3 — is probably not a huge deal.)

      If you want to immediately and unequivocally see a huge difference between bluray discs and up-scaled DVDs, just look at the disc menu. Several of my bluray discs have a dozen options on the screen, each nicely explained with text. A regular DVD simply cannot do that.

      Outside of the menus, it is true that a good upscaler can make DVDs look good enough for a high-def screen. Though that can depend on the originator of the DVD. For example, Disney appears to be absolutely anal about compression quality, and their DVDs upscale wonderfully.

      The best upscaling will be with great quality DVDs in scenes that are not busy and that do not feature straight lines and high contrast (like the letters in a menu). I can definitely see the difference in the Corpse Bride, but the upscaled DVD is still very nice quality.

    3. I agree with you that menus will suffer in this sort of comparison, but I watch movies, not menus, and use them strictly as guides to the content, to be dispensed with as quickly as possible.

      Peace,
      Gene

    4. Adam says:

      I want an affordable Blu-Ray burner for my Mac Pro to create archival backups. Right now that’s a $600.00 bite for my Apple. A $400.00 player is likewise a hefty price tag for a lot of us, just to be entertained with greater definition. When the prices come down, the adoption rate will go up.

      I am old enough to remember $1,000 VHS machines. The price on those came down well before a good alternative was available. At that time, though, my home had a CED video disc machine. For those not familiar with it, this was a technology that played movies from a vinyl disc encased in a hard plastic cartridge via a needle in groove technology not unlike vinyl records. To this day, whenever I watch Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope I reflexively want to get off the couch and flip the disc just as the Millennium Falcon reaches Alderaan. 🙂
      The resolution on these movies was not great. Over time they developed skips as dust collected in the grooves and you could not access the discs to clean them. You had to flip/switch discs every 60 minutes, and they were read-only. We loved them. Why? Because in the early days the cost of VHS was simply prohibitive and these movies were not (although they typically sold for twice the cost of today’s DVDs without adjusting for inflation). To be able to rent movies in any format then was a huge luxury. As VHS became affordable, though, the transportation of Hollywood to the living room became common.
      With the ubiquity of DVD these days Blu-Ray players will only see widespread adoption when the prices drop, end of story. Until then, “Scotty, scale me up!”

      Cheers!
      A

    5. Wayne says:

      Gene,

      I mentioned menus only to make the point that it is well and truly higher rez and you can demonstrate it to yourself with zero subjectivity or A/B comparison with DVDs. Not that you’d spend a lot of time in menus.

      As I mentioned, there is a greater or lesser visible difference (to me) between Bluray and upscaled DVD (non-menu), depending on the studio, the content, etc. And if you’re watching “hi def” on a 32″ screen and a $100 DVD player, you’ll see zero difference. Blu-ray’s superior image is a non-starter in that market segment. On the other hand, get a 45″ or larger 1080p screen, and a $400 player is not as much of a deal, and differences in quality become perceptible.

      For example, Corpse Bride on upscaled DVD looks good on our 42″ 1080p screen. But then pop in the Bluray, and you can see the texture in the characters’ “skin”. The upscaled DVD didn’t look fuzzy, but you were simply missing detail that you didn’t know was there. Which is, after all, how video compression works. In the best case, the compression level is appropriate for the output resolution, but when you have to upscale it, there’s no magical “bring details back” algorithm. There are only “make it look smooth” algorithms.

      Is it worth it to people who are basically happy with standard-def TV and DVDs and may choose to get a somewhat-larger screen and it’s all good if it basically looks about the same? Nope. But there are others of us who do see and care, and we don’t have golden eyes/ears.

      Actually, now that you’ve mentioned it, menu definition does matter. More detail means more on a single menu, which means less navigation. DVD-rez fits what, perhaps 6 choices on a single screen and those choices each get all of 2-3 words to describe them? On my Ratatouille (sp?) Blu-ray, I get something like a dozen choices on one screen, each with a sentence describing them. That’s faster and less error prone.

      Another point that springs off of the whole “Bluray’s Biggest Comptetitor” concept is that internet downloads will deliver “HD” movies, but that’s it. I wouldn’t buy a DVD without extras, I’m disappointed if a rented DVD doesn’t have extras, and it’s certainly part of our family’s movie enjoyment to watch extras. I think physical discs will continue for some time because of resolution and extras. (Which are really only half-explored on current DVDs.)

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