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Newsletter Issue #461

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

So is your Mac ready for retirement? That was one of the key issues discussed on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, as we brought on author and commentator Adam Engst, publisher of TidBITS and Take Control Books, to discuss the best ways to buy a new Mac.

It should be an easy process, but not necessarily. For one thing, Apple’s product line isn’t quite as complete as it should be, and there are probably compromises that have to be made. You’ll recall, for example, how some of us have been urging Apple to develop a midrange minitower, in the tradition of the IIci. The prospects for such a beast, however, don’t appear very high, but you never really know about Apple.

In any case, Adam and I also examined the possibilities for future Apple products, including that major product transition hinted at during their last session with financial analysts. It’s not that we had any hard, fast answers, but the journey is fascinating nonetheless.

Commentator Kirk McElhearn came onboard to explain how you can survive without online access. The question, of course, is whether you want to, and that’s a situation I readily admit I’m not prepared for, and I wonder if I care to be.

Kirk also delivered his unvarnished views about Apple’s recent iPod refresh.

Macworld’s Dan Frakes was on hand to discuss the latest Apple news and views and the prospects for major new cutting-edge product introductions.

Moving on to another front, on The Paracast this week, This week, meet UFO researcher Paola Harris talks about her ongoing research, including reminiscences of her meetings with Col. Philip J. Corso about his Roswell-related experiences. She will also talk about the strange study of exopolitics, and its possible relevance to UFO investigation.

Coming October 5: Broadcast legend Hilly Rose talks about his long-time history as a paranormal talk show host and his own paranormal encounters.ities have terrorized her and her family over the last few years, and how they’ve coped with the situation.

THE FOLLY OF BLAMING APPLE FOR ALL YOUR CELL PHONE PROBLEMS

On the one hand, all the mobile phone carriers are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to tell potential customers about their great products and service. Sometimes the ads are about the latest cool mobile device, but others talk about the superior network, with fewer dropped calls and more reception bars.

We have one carrier, Verizon Wireless, demonstrating rather graphically how their incredible network will follow you wherever you go. I guess the “can you hear me now” promotion has seen its day.

In the real world, however, mobile phones don’t always work so well. When it comes to voice quality, most calls sound inferior to what you can get with two tin cans and a single wire. Alexander Graham Bell must be spinning in his grave.

Part of the problem is the switch to all-digital cell phone systems. It appears the carriers are taking advantage of the technology and compressing signals more and more to handle additional simultaneous connections. That may help them support more customers, but it doesn’t necessarily play well with voice quality. Hearing the caller within a digital haze, or sounding as if they were talking to you from beneath the ocean, is just not acceptable. Surely they can do better.

I suppose any connection, so long as you don’t get too many dropped calls, is good enough for most customers. But didn’t a good enough philosophy help Microsoft rise to the top of the PC operating system business with me-too products?

When Apple announced the iPhone, some analysts were extremely skeptical. How could a newcomer to the industry magically surpass the quality and features of companies who have been building wireless phones for years? Where did Apple get the temerity to believe they could get a foothold in such an overly saturated market?

Well, certainly from a usability standpoint, the iPhone is a marvelous piece of consumer electronics engineering and design excellence. It looks great, and most users can master their phones with little guidance in a relatively short period of time.

Compare that to the traditional cell phone, which comes with nearly-unreadable instructions and operating systems that present a maze of confusing menus without any real attempt to make all those extra features usable. It’s like the Mac versus PC wars all over again.

Only there’s a huge difference here. Apple no longer controls the whole widget. Yes, they build the hardware the operating system, plus most of the software people use on a daily basis, but they are still tethered to all those flawed wireless networks.

Just because Apple provides a better engineered product doesn’t mean that you will get better voice quality or more freedom from disconnections or other network troubles. Indeed, AT&T’s young 3G network is still in a heavy-duty growth pattern. That means, there are going to be glitches, and capacity issues are legion.

In addition, since the iPhone is used more heavily for straight-ahead Internet access than most other wireless phone platforms, it will put different levels of stress on the networks.

To be sure, the iPhone hasn’t been without its own growing pains. The original version 1 software had a number of upgrades before it was replaced by version 2, which has had three updates so far, and another is reportedly in the beta testing stage.

With many mobile phones, you can only get a firmware update by actually bringing the handset to your wireless carrier’s own factory store, and prepare to waste a good hour of your time, unless the store is especially crowded. An iPhone can be updated via iTunes on your Mac or PC with little fuss or muss.

But even if Apple gets all their ducks in a row, and 99% of the potential issues are resolved (and that’s pretty good considering the imperfect nature of software), they will always suffer because of factors that they cannot directly control.

Sure, Apple has a choice about which wireless carriers to partner with, but there are limitations. For example, building a world phone employing GSM technology prevents them from partnering with Verizon Wireless, which uses CDMA, even though it has the best reputation for service and support. I won’t dignify Sprint as a valid candidate, since its support has been a total disaster, with little evidence that they are accomplishing much to resolve the problem.

Despite the limitations of its operating environment with the iPhone, Apple won’t get a break from its customers or the media. Perhaps they created that problem themselves, by convincing so many of us that their gear as superior in terms of ease-of-use and reliability. In fact, some alleged tech writers are still blaming the iPhone 3G chipset reportedly built by Infineon Technologies AG as responsible for ongoing connection difficulties on a 3G network, even though the very same chips are used by other handset makers with reasonable success.

So, whatever they do to improve the iPhone, Apple will still find themselves at the mercy of the wireless carriers, and, beyond urging them strongly to change their ways, there’s not much they can do about that.

BROADCAST NETWORKS VERSUS CABLE: THE DIFFERENCE IS GONE

For decades, broadcast TV was king, and latecomer cable TV was largely a repository of wall-to-wall news and repeats. That is, except for the premium channels, such as HBO and Showtime, where they sometimes presented original programming in addition to their regular menu of recent movie releases.

It wasn’t long before The Sopranos and other cutting-edge programming drew attention, and ratings, to the cable side of the schedule. Suddenly, Emmy awards began to recognize cable programs as the equal to the broadcast variety.

But it was only the beginning.

Over time, more and more shows originated on cable. Sometimes it was just low-budget junk, but more and more of these entrants featured name performers, tight scripts and major league production values.

Today, cable TV stations originate the likes of Burn Notice, The Closer, Damages, Monk, and let’s not forget The Shield. In most cases, the content is fully acceptable to a broadcast TV audience, although some of those shows, beginning with The Shield, also use frank language that would get any broadcast TV network into a heap of trouble if they dared to present such episodes without serious editing.

To the surprise of few, this year’s Emmy awards went to an amazingly large number of performers and programs from the cable side of the industry. Call it a coming of age ceremony, although the handwriting has been on the wall for quite some time.

You see, from a viewer’s standpoint, unless you are fixated on what is received via a regular antenna, there really is no difference between broadcast and cable TV. They are both among the hundreds of stations from which you can select, and their schedules can be evaluated equally. Both are available in high definition — although the cable TV industry hasn’t caught up to satellite in the number of HDTV stations offered — and production values seem identical.

Consider the stellar acting, sharp scripts and great special effects in Battlestar Galactica. Sure, the Sci Fi Channel doesn’t have quite the ratings reach of broadcast TV, but USA Network, which, like the Sci Fi Channel, is owned by NBC/Universal, has seen some of its shows come extremely close. Over the summer, in fact, the cable TV alternative sometimes defeated network fare in terms of audience numbers.

Now early in 2009, analog TV in the U.S. will shut down, replaced by digital. Some people will simply use low-cost converter boxes to continue to watch the stations they do now. But both cable and satellite are pushing to sign up these customers as quickly as they can, reminding them that they will be forever liberated from antennas. Well, you’ll still have the cable or satellite set top box, and the latter requires a dish or two. But let’s not dwell on such fine distinctions.

Has broadcast TV seen the handwriting on the wall yet, or will they continue to pretend that they are the sole purveyors of mass-market content? The facts are simply not on their side.

THE FINAL WORD

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

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