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  • Newsletter Issue #498

    June 14th, 2009

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    Whether you do a weekly radio show, or one broadcast every day, there’s always a possibility that a guest might fail to show. Usually there are solid reasons. On occasion, the person involved just doesn’t want to bother. In any case, I ran into this situation very recently.

    I invited a friend to record a segment with reasonable advance warning. However, on the day in question, he ran into a horrendous traffic situation on the road and was quite late getting home. Fortunately, we got a last-minute replacement — with five minutes warning — and we went on to produce another great episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE.

    The main topic was an outgrowth of last week’s events, involving the assorted developments at Apple’s annual WWDC, where Apple revised its note-book line and cut the prices, set a September shipping date for its Snow Leopard operating system, and announced a June 17th shipping date for the iPhone 3.0 software and June 19th for the new 3G S model.

    Along for the ride was author and commentator Adam Engst, Editor/Publisher of TidBITS and PCMag.com’s Lance Ulanoff. This presented an interesting contrast, as Adam is a long-time Mac user, and Lance works primarily on the Windows platform. That said, Lance delivered quite a fair-minded presentation about WWDC, and the prospects for Microsoft’s Windows 7.

    In addition, we invited Justin Sanderson of MyService to talk about repairing your Mac, and Lee Givens, Mac product manager for AOL, to explain how the service will change once it is set loose by Time Warner. Hint: There will be new versions of all their iPhone and Mac software in the weeks to come.

    This week on our other radio show, The Paracast, we assemble Dr. David M. Jacobs and Budd Hopkins, head of The Intruders Foundation, both veteran UFO abduction researchers, to form a square table (not a roundtable) with Gene and David to talk about this frightening scenario and its possible reality and purpose.

    Coming June 21: Meet John Burroughs, former member of the Air Force stationed at Bentwaters Air Force Base, who was an eyewitness to strange events at Rendlesham Forest during the classic 1980 UFO incident. Also on board for this special event is Peter Robbins, co-author of “Left at East Gate.” During this discussion, Burroughs will discuss the results of submitting to hypnotic regression with regard to his memories of the incident.

    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.

    THE BROWSER WARS AND MICROSOFT’S ONGOING DECEPTION

    Two events that may seem unrelated have converged this week to paint a picture about one company on the ascendancy and another company that’s faltering and seems to only understand how to damage its tarnished reputation even further.

    First came Apple’s surprising announcement that some 11 million copies of Safari 4.0 were downloaded during the first three days it was available. Even more intriguing is the fact that six million of those downloads came from Windows users.

    Now as you might recall, Apple’s first foray into building a Windows version brought force a Mac-like interface in all its glory. In a sense, the Windows user was being transported to another operating system universe. I can see, in part, this being a good thing, or just doing to that platform what some Windows developers have done to the Mac over the years by delivering apps that failed to follow Mac OS conventions. My first reaction was “serves them right.”

    On the other hand, if Apple is serious about its cross-platform intentions, they really had to build a Windows app that can seamlessly integrate itself into that operating system. That has been done with Safari 4.0, which even uses the Windows font rendering system.

    Even better: The new Safari appears to work beautifully on both platforms, delivering state-of-the-art rendering accuracy. Indeed, it is the only browser, so far at least, to pass the exceedingly difficult Acid 3 test with 100% fidelity. Nobody else, even Google’s Chrome, or Mozilla’s Firefox, has attained that plateau. Microsoft Internet Explorer 8 is so far off the mark, it’s pathetic.

    In terms of rendering speeds, Safari 4.0 remains at the top or close in every test I’ve read so far. You have to wonder just how fast browsers can get before they are instantaneous on all but the slowest Internet connections, and I think we’re just about there.

    Apple’s new entrant also seems to be quite stable and the new Top Sites feature (influenced by a similar if less flashy capability in Opera) and the ever-present Cover Flow really make one’s online experience quite pleasing.

    I realize that some of you prefer Firefox, perhaps because of its features or the availability of a host of add-ons. Others cherish Opera for its consistent innovation and the reinvigorated efforts to improve rendering speeds.

    What’s great about all this is that, whether you’re a Mac or Windows user, you can get a great selection of browsers, and one will likely provide the right mix for your individual needs and desires. Now if Apple would only bring out a Linux version too. That would be a fascinating prospect.

    As far as Microsoft is concerned, despite some improvements, Internet Explorer 8 is way down on the list in every respect. Once again, Microsoft remains a year or two behind in technology.

    On another front, I find their foolish effort to obey a European Union edict about opening up the browser choices on a Windows box to be another example of Microsoft’s endless hubris. A simple solution would be to bundle installers for several of the most popular browsers, and then present them in alphabetical order and let you choose which one you want installed when you set up your new PC.

    That’s easy enough, right? Instead, Microsoft decided to just remove Internet Explorer, and provide no alternative. Now the conventional way to obtain another browser would be to go online to get a copy. But with no browser, how are you supposed to do that?

    Sure, you can copy the browser installer from anther PC, a CD/DVD or connect to a download spot by FTP, but each of these solutions is awkward, and would prove to be endlessly confusing to the average home user. In a sense, Microsoft wants to punish new customers residing in EU countries for daring to want a choice of browsers.

    Clearly, the word simple is not in Microsoft’s DNA. If you don’t accept their way of doing things, prepare to be punished for your opposition. Take the EU order some years back that directed Microsoft to provide documentation for its server products to meet the needs of competitors to make their products compatible. Microsoft took years to write the material, and then provided results that were labeled by experts as “incomprehensible.”

    Assuming that the actions weren’t deliberate — and that’s an open question — you have to wonder about a company that cannot clearly and concisely document how its own products work. No wonder Windows can be such a headache once you stray beyond the simple stuff.

    Maybe, instead of just imposing higher fines against Microsoft, perhaps a few of their executives, including Steve Ballmer, ought to be cited for contempt and forced to spend a few months or years in prison. Maybe that would teach them the meaning of the phrase “keep it simple stupid!”

    DISH NETWORK: AFTER THE SWITCH

    So as regular readers recall, I’ve gone back and forth in TV services since I moved to Arizona in 1993. First there was the local cable company, Cox. But after having some particularly irritating customer service issues, I dropped the TV component of the service and switched to Dish Network.

    Picture quality was clearly superior, particularly compared to the remaining analog stations on Cox’s network. But Dish’s transition to high definition was painfully slow at first. They and DirecTV needed to launch additional satellites to provide the extra capacity. So when we moved to a new home nearly three years ago, I returned to Cox Communications, which made various promises about expansion of the number of HD channels that would be added to their system.

    Segue to June 2009, where Cox’s promises were mostly unfilled. Whether 65 HD channels or 100 — both set for the end of 2008 — it never seemed to happen. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the claim that 16 new HD channels had been added to the service, yet I couldn’t receive any of them, and got half a dozen answers as to why.

    Dish Network has long since boosted its capacity, and nowadays boasts of having more HD channels in its arsenal than any other TV service. The claimed number is 140. The service I ordered lists 105, but doesn’t include an extra Platinum HD package, nor some of the additional sports programming, so I will be generous and accept their claim.

    The first week’s service has been pretty much what I expected. Sharp pictures, substantially free of digital noise, and only occasional pixelation and other digital artifacts. A couple of days of bad weather (the bane of satellite TV’s existence) didn’t hurt reception in any way that I noticed.

    Technical support has been good. One rep talked me through an undocumented remote control trick that lets you switch the mapping of the volume control from the TV to a standard audio system (which is accessed via the AUX mode). However, I still prefer my Logitech Harmony 890 universal remote, which offers a far more automated setup. I did have to spend a little time — with the help of a friendly Logitech support person — to configure the remote for Dish’s VIP-722 DVR. After that, every conceivable function that I needed to use was readily available and clearly labeled.

    As I said previously, Dish’s highly-rated VIP-722 DVR is way better than the Scientific-Atlantic unit provided by Cox and other cable providers. It manages functions far faster and more reliably, and the interface is reasonably pleasant to navigate through, with large text and descriptive labeling. There are a few areas where it might be improved, but nothing significant comes to mind after  limited exposure.

    Storage space for HD content is also far more commodious than the Cox box. The VIP-722 has a 500GB drive, sufficient to store roughly 55 hour-long HD programs. Cox promises 20 on their DVR’s 160GB drive, which indicates to me that it’s getting more compression. The picture quality, noticeably inferior to that provided by Dish, indicates that my conclusion is accurate.

    The VIP-722 also has a Skip function that lets you jump forward in 30 second increments on recorded shows, so you can quickly scan through commercials. The Scientific-Atlanta DVR offers only the more awkward Fast Forward mode, which remained a trial and error process even after I became reasonably accustomed to navigating back and forth.

    As I said last week, I am concerned about the potential threat to Dish’s customers who could lose all or most of their DVR functions if Dish’s latest appeal in their ongoing legal skirmish with TiVO results in still another loss. Since it’s really all about money, it would seem to me that Dish ought to find a way to reach a licensing pact with the still-struggling TiVO and be done with it. Even though the VIP-722 has a decent, functional interface, having a real TiVO alternative would still be a better solution.

    All this assumes, of course, that the two companies and their lawyers can agree to make nice. Or maybe Dish/Echostar CEO and Chairman Charlie Ergen will just decide write a large check to TiVO and buy the company outright. Then he can get in on the lawsuit action against Dish’s competitors.

    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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