• Newsletter Issue #495

    May 24th, 2009


    The media can’t stop talking about the possibility that Apple is prepping a netbook, perhaps a tablet-based computer, which will be released perhaps as soon as the second half of the year. Well, on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I called on my friend, nationally-syndicated tech writer and talk show host Craig Crossman, from the Computer America radio show,  talk about the possibilities for Apple’s WWDC and future products. After repeating some of the conventional wisdom, he went on to say why he doesn’t see a netbook in Apple’s future.

    Well, that’s a change. He might even be right, particularly if the netbook phenomenon proves to be short lived. Indeed, the troubling signs on the horizon are reports that some 30% of the products sold are returned by dissatisfied customers. If that’s true, buyer’s remorse will eventually do the netbooks in as a popular product. But I’ll cover this in more detail in the next article.

    We also called on author and commentator Kirk McElhearn, who discussed the care and feeding of hard drives, and then presented his hopes and dreams for the Snow Leopard Finder.

    To bring it all home, we asked cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine, to discuss the impact of Microsoft’s new “laptop” ad campaign and the prospects, such as they are, for Windows 7. His feeling, folks, is that Windows 7 is destined to be another Zune, which means a potential sales disaster for Microsoft. That, of course, remains to be seen.

    This week on our other radio show, The Paracast, we present UFO investigators Robert Hastings and Don Ecker (who considers himself retired from the field) to discuss UFOs and disinformation. They will cover such issues as how the spread of false information has hindered efforts to get to the bottom of the mystery.

    Coming May 31: UFO author, researcher and lecturer L.A. Marzulli discusses UFOs, their possible origin and the impact of Biblical prophecies on present-day events.

    Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt. We’re taking orders direct from our new Official Paracast Store, where you can place your order and pay with a major credit card or PayPal. The shirts come in white, 100% cotton, and feature The Paracast logo on the front. The rear emblem states: “Separating Signal From Noise.” You can get them for $14.95, each, plus shipping, and you can select from most popular sizes.


    I often get the feeling that some so-called tech writers would love to trade places with Steve Jobs. That way, they could direct the affairs of Apple and have it build the products they really want.

    Unfortunately, though it is real easy to be an armchair critic, actually running a multibillion dollar global corporation is another thing entirely. It takes real special skills, and you can see that Apple has had trouble filling the top spot over the years. From John Scully to Gil Amelio, all were tragic failures in one way or another, perhaps because they couldn’t see the long-term impact of their decisions.

    That, more than anything, may be the biggest advantage Steve Jobs holds over the other CEOs who have run Apple over the years — and some say almost into the ground. He and his fellow executives don’t look only as far as the next quarter in plotting their strategy for Apple. So a temporarily falloff in sales or a temporary craze won’t interest them, because they don’t believe that serves the long-term success of the company.

    In contrast, it appears most of the other PC makers on the planet are so busy fighting tooth and nail for every possible sale that they are often missing the big picture.

    However, it’s also clear that the other players in this business are not masters of their own destiny. They just build the hardware, and buy OEM licenses from Microsoft and other companies to fill the hard drives with software. When it comes to Windows, they are often stuck with long-term deals that mostly prevent them from innovating. Installing a large number of units with Linux or actually building their own operating system, as it was done in the old days, is simply out of the question.

    More to the point, whether your PC has a Dell, HP, Acer or Lenovo label on it, to mention just some of the larger companies, there’s otherwise little difference among them. Except for a few pathetic attempts, and special gaming models, all look pretty much the same and are near-impossible to distinguish at a distance. They are doing little more than assembling commodity components under their own brand names.

    As far as the PC buyer is concerned, there’s little to choose from. You consider a set of specs, and most PC makers will have something in their lineup to meet your needs. In addition to the standard OEM Windows license, you will get a load of crapware from companies that paid bribes to get space on your new PC’s desktop.

    With the netbook, they simply took the same product strategy and shrunk standard note-books down in size. With smaller screens, low-performance processors, tinier hard drives and tinier cases, the cost of production is reduced. So you pay less, and, yes, you get what you paid for.

    Indeed, as I’ve discussed several times, there appears to be some degree of buyer’s remorse setting in. People buy a netbook perhaps because they’re small in cute, or maybe they just can’t afford a full-sized note-book because of the perilous state of the economy. Regardless, they appear to be lapping up these new devices in larger and larger numbers, and the tech media has decided that Apple is seriously missing the boat if they don’t jump into the fray with their own contender forthwith.

    The problem is that there are also reports of high levels of dissatisfaction. I’ve read figures describing netbook returns to dealers in the 20% to 30% range. Some complain it’s because many netbooks ship with Linux rather than Windows XP and that may in part be true, since the customers are suddenly confronted with an operating system that, while designed to be fairly ease to use, looks unfamiliar and contains software that may be extremely strange to them.

    But the real problem, and one that Apple points to, is that many people who buy these devices may find they are simply not suitable for their purposes. The tinier keyboards may be uncomfortable, and the inability to run their favorite applications with good performance, besides having to navigate on a smaller screen, may be the deal breaker.

    This isn’t to say that you can’t get anything done with a small screen. But as Apple has demonstrated with the iPhone and iPod touch, you have to rejigger the operating system to operate efficiently under such constraints. If it’s done well, you can be remarkably productive. Otherwise, you are simply coping with a jury-rigged product that was pieced together in a hurry by companies in the hope they’ll catch a wave.

    Now Microsoft, stung by the lower profits from selling licenses for an aging operating system, hopes to tame Windows 7 to work decently on netbooks. There have been early statements about people getting a basic version that only lets you run three applications at a time, though it’s possible Microsoft may be having second thoughts about this misguided decision. Fundamentally, though, a netbook of this sort is still a cheaper, smaller version of a regular note-book.

    At the same time, PC makers, hoping to eke out higher profits, are working on adding more powerful processors, more RAM, larger hard drives and even bigger screens. Obviously these souped up versions will cost more, but at some point they may all be transformed into — you guessed it — a regular note-book. By then, they hope the economy’s ills will be on the mend and they can go back to business as usual.

    This doesn’t mean that Apple isn’t seriously considering a contender in this market segment. But it won’t be a smaller MacBook. It’ll be something else again, and only Apple’s employees and perhaps some of their manufacturing partners know what will come out of their development labs.

    That’s right. Keep them guessing! In the end, in fact, if netbooks prove a passing fad, Apple may simply focus on something totally different.


    One of the topics we deal with regularly on our paranormal show is conspiracies. When you confront the strange and unknown, it’s easy to feel everyone is out to get you. But before you get the wrong idea, I do not necessarily accept those theories. I try to strike a balance, though I accept that such a task is sometimes difficult.

    But in the aftermath of last week’s issue, where I suggested that the cloud computing era might bring with it more problems than you’d care to handle, I encountered a couple of situations where the shortcomings came up front and personal.

    On Thursday evening, for example, our live stream of the tech show was proceeding normally, when suddenly our broadband connection came to a dead stop.

    Now basically, the show is funneled through an outboard signal processor, then returned to our Mac Pro where it is sent to our server via Apple’s QuickTime Broadcaster. We feed an MP4 (not 3) signal to deliver high quality audio at a low bit rate, so you get near FM quality even on a dial-up connection. In turn our server, a Linux CentOS box, uses Apple’s open source application, Darwin Streaming Server, to transmit the signal to your Mac or PC.

    With me so far?

    So when the signal was interrupted, it was the equivalent of knocking down a terrestrial station’s broadcast antenna. We were stuck until the connection was restored. Yes, I did call our Internet provider, Cox Communications. After a few minutes of checking, the tech confirmed an outage in our neighborhood that affected the Internet and cable TV. In the end, we just uploaded the complete episode to the site when the connection was restored later that evening.

    The next day, while editing an episode of the paranormal show, I got an email about a possible problem with one of our sites. You see, we outsource our email to a third-party provider, currently Rackspace Email (it used to be known as webmail.us, in case you’re checking), so we don’t lose access if our server goes down.

    Now the sites weren’t actually offline, but access was extremely slow. After some brief testing to see if I could isolate a problem from our end — or theirs — I telephoned our host, 1and1 Internet. Normally their dedicated server division answers the phone almost instantaneously. This time, I listened to music on hold for about 15 minutes as I continued to experience the problem. Finally the technician answered and confirmed that, yes, they had a hardware issue at their Kansas-based datacenter, involving a problem with a large network switch. They were working on it and service would be restored to full speed shortly.

    Indeed, he confirmed that ours was the 70th phone call about the problem that he had personally fielded. I felt for him, because I realize such matters are beyond the control of a support person. But true to his word, within another 15 minutes or so, the typically razor-sharp speeds of our sites were restored. Indeed, this is the most serious outage we’ve encountered with 1and1’s hardware in the six months I’ve worked with them, so I’m not about to complain. I’ve had worse elsewhere — far worse.

    Now hardware failures of the sort encountered at our host’s datacenter are not unusual. They happen all the time, and actually their response to the situation was fairly prompt . Cox was also relatively quick to respond and fix their issue, which could have been anything from a broken cable to a hardware failure.

    While I understand performance issues involving cable TV, the Internet and a lone Web server, I am less sympathetic about systems that provide business services to tens of millions of customers. I would hope that the issues faced by Amazon, Apple and Google will continue to become less frequent over time. The sooner the better, if the cloud is going to revolutionize personal computing.


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

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
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    2 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #495”

    1. arw says:

      I find it ironic that personal computing liberated us from dumb terminals interfaced with mainframes, only to have an industry effectively trying to push us back to a variant of this model. (One could say licensed software was the first salvo.) I for one, however, recognize this and will always fight to retain the rights and power that the personal computing revolution has bestowed upon mankind. I’m quite fond of my personal virtual world driven by Macintosh. Viva la personal computing!

    2. Constable Odo says:

      I’m really surprised about the growth of netbooks within such a short time. They quickly reversed the trend of the computer industry. Up until last year, people wanted more powerful notebooks with larger screens, full size keyboards and memory. Then all of a sudden everyone seems to be satisfied with these low-priced little tiddlers whose overall capabilities should be extremely limited. Maybe it’s because they’re like Pampers, use them once and toss them away. I really thought netbooks were built for use in third-world countries and not places like the U.S. Honestly, a netbook just doesn’t seem to suit an American’s style of building it bigger, better and faster. The whole American concept changed in six months or so. I can only say that if people really are satisfied with using a netbook for browsing or email, then I guess it’s good enough. In places like Japan or Korea, a cellphone with a keypad is more than sufficient to replace a netbook. I’d swear a high-end BlackBerry would be good as having any netbook.

      I suspect Apple doesn’t want to give into to lowering it’s quality standards or performance standards and build a netbooks. Besides, there’s little profit (margins) in it. I think as soon as the economy bounces back, netbooks will disappear as suddenly as they appeared. As it is, they’re growing in size and price. I’m more than satisfied with my MacBook Pro 2.33 C2D and it’s good for all around use. I’m looking forward to an Apple tablet because it will be running a mobile OS that will be powerful enough to play mobile games and I’ll be able to stream videos to it with hopefully a battery life of about six hours. I don’t know how good it will be for typing when using a virtual keyboard in horizontal mode, but with practice, it might be good enough for me.

      Netbooks days are numbered because the PC industry really can’t make any money from them and they’re just a stopgap alternative for a real notebook. I’m anxious to see what Apple is going to throw at the public. If it’s a decent product, the entire industry will soon be flooded with similar products from every computer company in the world and the current netbook form will quickly disappear.

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