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Newsletter Issue #450

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

With iPhone 3G waiting in the wings, I wanted this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE to focus heavily on Apple’s new gear, plus their new Web-based services.

First on the agenda was noted industry Analyst Ross Rubin, of the NPD Group, who examined the sales prospects for Apple’s newest gadget and then explored the entire Mac universe and how things are faring for now and in the near future. In case you are only familiar with Ross by dint of his name being mentioned in various tech articles, he actually started out as one of us. He was a writer for MacUser and MacWeek years ago, before he got into the industry analyst game. He fully understands what it’s like as both the journalist and interview subject, which is why he is so relaxed when I call on him, often on short notice, to deliver informed commentary.

In addition, Macworld Editorial Director Jason Snell took an up close and personal look at the advantages and the possible shortcomings of the new iPhone software, along with some of the things we might expect from future enhancements. Since he’s also a TV expert, the final segment of the interview focused on the summer TV season, and some of the hot show prospects for the fall.

You also met Shahab Kaviani, from HyperOffice, who explained why he regards their collaborative software product as a superior alternative to Microsoft Exchange for small to medium-sized businesses.

Moving to another front, on The Paracast this week, meet scientist Jan W. Vandersande Ph.D., author of “Life After Death: Some of the Best Evidence.”

Coming July 20: World traveler Klaus Dona returns to The Paracast to talk about anomalous ancient artifacts he has discovered that may indicate the presence of advanced civilizations in our prehistory and perhaps ancient astronauts.

THE iPHONE 3G: THREE TIMES A CHARM

Some people suggest our headlines don’t always match the content, but I don’t agree. In this case, the headline results from the fact that I made three attempts to buy an iPhone 3G before I succeeded. I hope you appreciate my dedication to the task, or my stupidity for wasting so much time before I was actually able to buy one.

It all started early Friday morning. I had assumed that the nearby AT&T factory store wouldn’t be inundated with shoppers waiting to buy one. That would seem to be the province of an Apple Store.

But I was totally wrong. When I arrived at the nearest AT&T outlet, nearly 150 people were waiting in line. I walked casually to the rear, asking someone offhandedly if this was the “Star Wars” line? My foolish remark earned a few chuckles and perhaps a number of episodes of rolling eyes.

An AT&T salesperson came by shortly thereafter. He said that they had 80 phones in stock, but nobody budged.

Except me, after I asked the location of the next nearest store.

There, the situation seemed more promising. The crowd was closer to 100, and had begun to shrink rapidly. But nobody from AT&T showed up to reassure anyone that they could actually take an iPhone home. So I had someone reserve my place, walked to the entrance and had a brief conversation with the sole AT&T employee in evidence outside.

As I feared, they said they didn’t have near enough product to fill the demand, but they could take the order and have it shipped directly to the store “in a few days.”

At this point, I was tempted to simply give up the quest, at least for that day.

However, I had previously made a commitment to appear on Craig Crossman’s nationally-syndicated Computer America radio show and talk about the new iPhone. After listening to Craig’s tales of woe about failed attempts to upgrade his version 1.0 iPhone with the 2.0 software, I felt a renewed sense of dedication, and phoned the Apple Store in nearby Chandler, AZ.

To my surprise, they assured me they had ample stocks, but reminded me that they “couldn’t guarantee we’d have one when you get here.” With an estimated one hour waiting time, I decided to take the plunge and arrived at the store about 12:45 PM.

As the Apple employee promised, I got into the store in less than 60 minutes, as the crowd of 100 eager iPhone fans moved quickly. However, there was a second line inside the store of about 50, and it took another half hour before I was greeted by a store employee with portable point of sale device in hand.

My feelings of optimism sunk rapidly, as he discovered his tiny computer was unable to scan the white iPhone 3G he grabbed from a large merchandise pile. No problem. He took another one, and finally had to reboot the POS device before it would proceed with the transaction.

Although I feared Apple’s staff would encounter difficulties handling an in-store wireless phone activation process, the rest of the transaction took a grand total of five minutes. It concluded with a quick syncing operation, where I connected my new iPhone 3G to an iMac, and had it undergo a quick configuration step.

“Your phone is ready to make calls now,” I was reminded. The rest of the activation process would occur when I connected the phone to my own computer back home. I had previously updated to the compatible version of iTunes, version 7.7, so I was ready.

After hearing reports that the call quality on the iPhone 3G was superior to the original version, I had a quick chance to confirm the claim. My wife called me moments after I left the store, and the connection quality was simply superb, as good as any landline phone I had ever used. I was also able to easily dock the device with my car’s Bluetooth system.

This seemed promising. A quick test of a few Web sites with the iPhone 3G’s Safari browser showed impressive performance on the higher-speed AT&T network. During his WWDC keynote presentation, Steve Jobs boasted of a 2.8 times improvement in rendering speeds. I have to say it seemed a lot quicker than that, or maybe I was blessed with an especially strong signal.

Now I realize that a lot of the iPhone 3G’s early adopters around the world encountered activation snafus at the stores or at home when they attempted to sync their brand new gadgets. Evidently most of the problems were resolved by the time I got home. After a sight delay in delivering the registration screen when iTunes was activated at the start of the sync process, the rest of the installation proceeded reasonably quickly. There were no hiccups of any kind. Would that I could say the same for the catastrophic debut of MobileMe which, as of this writing, still is delivering poky performance.

I’ll cover that subject in the next article.

Once fully charged, I committed my iPhone 3G to more extensive testing. Aside from the differences present in the iPhone 2.0 software, it felt functionally almost the same as the original. The screen felt a tad sticky until immersed in the grease given off by my finger tips, but that sensation subsided quickly with regular use.

The only oddity I encountered was the need to restart the unit before it would update my email, but it was otherwise fully functional. The new curved plastic backing actually feels a tad more comfortable in your hand. But it still fit my Belkin sleeve perfectly, because it’s dimensionally so close to its predecessor.

Some folks are complaining about a yellow cast to the iPhone 3G’s LCD screen, which is evidently due to using a warmer calibration to provide more natural color reproduction. However,  the difference is not at all significant, and you may hardly notice the change unless you have an original iPhone with which to compare it. Despite some claims that the viewing angle is more limited, that’s something I didn’t notice. I’ll let the test labs at the computer magazines make that determination.

That night, I learned that Craig Crossman had succeeded in updating his own iPhone to the 2.0 software, after three failed attempts. For him, four times was the charm.

MOBILEME DEBUT HITS SERIOUS SNAGS

I wonder if the executive who decided to introduce MobileMe just a couple of days ahead of the debut of the iPhone 3G didn’t get a hefty chewing out from Apple’s mercurial CEO. Unless, of course, Jobs himself had gotten that silly idea to begin with.

I realize it’s probably hard enough to migrate several million .Mac members to the revised service. At the same time, Apple was busy configuring its servers to handle the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 2.0 firmware upgrade, and the introduction for the App Store.

Maybe Apple’s server engineers are getting a little too full of themselves, or perhaps they underestimated the heavy-duty demands of the process. The six-hour conversion process for MobileMe persisted the following day. As of the weekend, although things seem to work properly, performance hasn’t quite reached the level I had expected. However, it is getting closer and closer to optimum, which would be a match or near-match to a desktop application.

During the entire transition period, though, I never, ever, ran into a problem sending and receiving my mac.com email, so Apple didn’t mess up completely. Call it a partial failure then.

After playing with the new interface with different browsers, though, I do have a few preliminary observations. First, the basic interface is mostly icon-based, which is unfortunately reminiscent of what you see in Windows Vista, particularly with Internet Explorer and Office 2007. So the PC audience that is getting its first taste of MobileMe might feel reasonably comfortable.

This is not to say that the icons are hard to distinguish and that is probably the only visible concession to Windows interface conventions. In addition, when you click on an icon, the mouse cursor fails to turn into the telltale hand, so you’re not always sure anything is happening.

Other than these quibbles, it does seem the rest of the interface is very similar to the equivalent Mac OS X desktop applications, notably Address Book, iCal, and Mail. An Actions menu is used to handle many functions, including preferences, reminiscent of the way the very same menu functions on your Mac’s desktop.

I ran through the general range of functions, including setting a few calendar events, modifying several contact entries, and sending and receiving email. The new “push” technology easily sent the changes to my Macs and the iPhone 3G.

Right now, I don’t have a final conclusion about whether MobileMe will fare better than .Mac. Certainly making it platform-agnostic will help, and doubling the storage and monthly bandwidth for the same $99 annual price is a significant development. On the other hand, with Google Apps and other free or low-cost services offering features that, other than push email, largely meet or exceed what Apple is offering, maybe a price reduction is also in order.

I mean, at $49 per year, and perhaps $79 for the family plan, MobileMe would be downright indispensable. Then again, maybe Apple needs all that extra cash to pay for the additional servers they have to build in order to handle the increased load from all their new online services.

THE FINAL WORD

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

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