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  • Newsletter Issue #502

    July 12th, 2009

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    When you view multimedia presentations on the Internet, do you stop to think about the underlying technology? Probably not. So long as you’re not interrupted in the process by a request to install a new plugin — something that’s fairly rare these days except for sites that require Windows Media support or are waiting to send you malware. You just have to wait a short time for the audio or video production to begin.

    However, there is still an ongoing argument among major players about which video content format is best. So on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we decided to take a look at the strange efforts by Mozilla, publishers of Firefox, and Opera to standardize on an obsolete method to present online video content. We called on an expert in matters of compatibility wars, and that’s Daniel Eran Dilger of Roughly Drafted Magazine.

    In another segment, industry analyst Ross Rubin, of the NPD Group, explored the uptick in the sales of new Macs, along with the prospects for netbooks, high definition TVs and Blu-ray. In short, we know Macs are doing quite well, thank you, and that netbooks are still selling briskly. Rather than engage in expensive outings for entertainment, the perilous state of the economy has forced many families to stay home. So they buy high definition TVs and Blu-ray DVD players to enhance their home theater systems.

    We also called on author and commentator Ted Landau to present his initial observations about the iPhone 3GS and the new 3.0 software. He also discussed “Twitter Trains” and what’s wrong with them.

    Now without going into excruciating detail, a Twitter Train is a trick used by some to get lots and lots of followers. I suppose that’s nice, but I still prefer the old fashioned way, involving people who actually care about my “tweets.”

    This week on our other radio show, The Paracast, we present a special three-hour tribute to the late Fortean author, John Keel, author of “The Mothman Prophecies” and other books. The all-star guest list of UFO and paranormal researchers includes Tim “Mr. UFO” Beckley, Jerome Clark, Loren Coleman, Jim Moseley, Brad Steiger and Curt Sutherly.

    Coming July 19: Fortean writer Christopher O’Brien discusses his personal encounters with the unknown and other strange mysteries, including UFOs and cattle mutilations.

    Coming July 26: Veteran researchers Dennis Balthaser and Frank Warren discuss the latest on the Roswell case and the prospects for UFO disclosure.

    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.

    DESPITE WHAT TROUBLESHOOTING SITES SAY, SOME THINGS REALLY DO JUST WORK

    A few years back, Mac users would regularly check troubleshooting sites for the latest information on hardware and software bugs, along with sage advice on what was needed to fix the problems. That was before CNET acquired MacFixIt (notice that I’m not putting a link here), which was, in turn, acquired by CBS.

    This isn’t to say that CNET doesn’t have hard-working people who are dedicated to their craft as tech columnists, reviewers and reporters. But MacFixIt took a direction that did not serve the Mac community well. Instead of making some effort to separate the occasional unusual problem from bugs that would affect a wide number of people, they appear to have got into the habit of just publishing stories without thoroughly vetting them.

    Rather than depend solely on information coming their way, they also troll Apple’s support discussion forums and technical documents for information, hoping they’ll reveal a useful tidbit. There’s certainly a little good and bad in this approach, although it’s also extremely lazy.

    You see, any forum that’s focused on support issues will be heavily weighted towards presenting posts from people who took the time to report their troubles. People who have encountered no difficulties at all have better things to do, such as using their Macs to actually get something accomplished.

    Unfortunately, that makes it alarmingly easy to conclude that everything that comes out of the development labs of Apple Inc. and many other companies can be regarded as fatally flawed. It only takes one or two reports of serious problems to convey that impression.

    This isn’t to say that the people who do post information about such issues are all faking it. Yes, I suspect a few might be hoaxes perpetrated by Windows fanboys or other people looking to stir some trouble. But most of these reports are from well-meaning people who are struggling with a problem that cries for a solution.

    Quite often those problems are individual in scope, perhaps due to some unique factors present in one’s system rather than indications of a trend. So job number one is to separate these anomalies from problems that are likely to impact a number of users.

    However, if the problem seems sensational enough, it is likely to be reprinted on a troubleshooting site without anyone taking the time to find out what really went wrong. Unfortunately this means that the real problems with an app or a hardware product are mixed in with the stuff that requires a local solution, or should be ignored altogether.

    In the real world, we all know that products do get released too early more often than not, and there are early production defects that need to be stamped out. I’ve said that often enough about the first generation of Intel-based Macs from Apple, and the initial point-zero releases of a new operating system upgrade. More often than not, updates will come early on. When it comes to hardware, it will be a running change of some sort, and those afflicted by the original problem can just take their machines back to Apple or an authorized dealer for repair or replacement.

    Both hardware and software failures are, alas, not always easy to diagnose. Frequent crashes may first be attributed to the operating system or software that’s used regularly, but may really be caused by defective RAM. In that case, though, the crashes are random, and aren’t focused a specific user action or software function. If that’s the case, you can run a hardware test, or call for outside help.

    The software bug can be just as pesky, just as annoying, but will often be the result of performing a specific act, such as accessing a Flash-based site in a browser. Indeed, one of the fixes in Snow Leopard is to essentially divorce a browser plugin from the browsers. So if the plugin crashes, the browser still functions. Now I’m not going to say unequivocally that Flash is a major cause of browser crashes, but I do suggest you check the sort of sites you’re visiting when the application freezes or quits.

    Another cause of frequent troubles with your Mac is a third-party add-0n, particularly something that enhances a basic system function. That sort of interaction is nowhere near as treacherous as the system extensions of the Classic Mac OS, but things can occasionally go wrong. This is particularly true when there’s a major Mac OS X upgrade.

    I have often recommended that you avoid the system upgrade, however compelling it may be, until you’re absolutely certain the software you require for your work is also compatible. If you’re largely sticking with Apple’s stuff, it may not matter. I rather suspect that Microsoft Office won’t be an issue all that often, since the Mac Business Unit is usually in touch with Apple’s developers about such matters. This isn’t to say that Office can’t be flaky, but you probably won’t have to wait long for change to come.

    When it comes to a minor update, I still think it’s worth a short wait, unless it’s designed to fix a problem that has seriously impacted your work or play. Otherwise, you’ll know soon enough by carefully checking the online chatter — with appropriate skepticism — whether there are new problems that simply make the originals relatively insignificant.

    As for me, my experiences with all this stuff have been extremely positive. I rarely suffer from any of the ills mentioned with great relish on those rumor sites. For example, my iPhone 3GS doesn’t overheat, and runs stably reliably, and very, very fast. Battery life is noticeably longer than that experienced with the 3G that’s now in the hands of its new owner. So color me satisfied, but if something goes wrong, you can bet you’ll be among the first to learn about it.

    DON’T GIVE UP ON BLU-RAY

    When the great high-definition DVD wars ended early in 2008, HD DVD was dead, and Blu-ray was victorious. Those who adopted the former were left with expensive gear that would do little but play the small number of HD DVD discs that had been released up till then.

    But industry pundits suggested that Blu-ray merely achieved a hollow victory, that online downloads of HD content would soon supplant physical media. Well, maybe that’ll be true some day, but the end of Blu-ray still, as far as I’m concerned, appears to be something that won’t happen for some years yet.

    This doesn’t mean that the movie companies aren’t providing alternatives. You can rent and buy high definition movies from Apple’s iTunes. Such services as Hulu and even Netflix will stream video content to your home, but not at the highest levels of quality just yet. The broadband services most of you use just aren’t fast enough to provide reasonable transfer rates for those huge files.

    At least not yet!

    Sure, perhaps the Obama administration’s initiative, part of the stimulus package, to fund rural broadband development, will improve the situation. But millions of you still rely on dial-up, some of you don’t even care about broadband and don’t bother even if it’s available in your neighborhood. At the same time, you have no problem placing an order for a Blu-ray DVD from Amazon, or strolling into your local Wal-Mart or Best Buy to browse for the latest titles.

    Netflix is a forward-looking company, but even their executives claim that the market for physical DVD rentals has plenty of growth left. Sure, the movie companies haven’t chalked up the huge sales figures of past years, but I suspect a lot of that is due to the fact that many of the people who buy movies and TV shows have already stocked up on most of their favorite titles.

    Sure, Blu-ray offers a tactile, visual impact that’s noticeably superior even to upconverted DVDs, but the difference isn’t so much as to entice people to repurchase their libraries in the new format. That is what spurred the rapid move from VHS to DVD, but it’s not going to happen again in anywhere near the same numbers.

    In saying that, it’s a sure thing that a blockbuster movie will sell in great numbers when the DVD version is out. The entertainment companies have already taken one useful step, which is to bring prices of Blu-ray discs down somewhat.

    As for the players themselves, most still hover around the $200 mark and then some. However, it’s widely expected that you’ll see products from some no-name manufacturers for less than $100 by the holiday season. That is apt to be the magic bullet for Blu-ray, and it’ll make it no-brainer purchase. You might see more and more of them bundled, free, with new HD televisions as well.

    Yes, there will come a time when Blu-ray is superfluous, as the formats that preceded it. But not yet.

    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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    2 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #502”

    1. dfs says:

      Two things make me think Blu-Ray will be around for some time to come. The first is that the price of HD camcorders has come down to the point where they are viable consumer products, and I suspect that many amateur moviemakers will rely on the disk medium to transport and archive their efforts. Then there’s the issue of bandwidth: does this country really have a good enough broadband infrastructure in place to support wide-scale streaming of HD feature-length movies? That places a whole lot more strain on the system than the low-grade stuff we get from sources like UTube. Recent ISP attempts to impose caps on individual subscribers’ bandwidth usage may indicate a certain nervousness on their part about this very issue. And if we don’t currently have the infrastructure, how likely is it that ISP carriers are willing to make the capital investment necessary to upgrade it? With the exception of Time-Warner, none of the major carriers would appear to have any stake in the success of distributing movies over the Internet, so they don’t have any financial incentive to do this. (Note that part of Obama’s stimulus package is intended to bring broadband to rural areas, as Gene observes, there’s nothing in it for improving our overall system although in comparison to countries like Japan and South Korea it’s a very mediocre one).

    2. DaveD says:

      I do agree with the degree of how far MacFixit has fallen. It used to be my first site for troubleshooting and is now the third. But, after a release of a Mac OS X update, it is the first site that I checked for any widespread issues. The Apple Support forum can be a pain to go through. MacFixit presents the issue with possible solutions in a nice writeup culled from the Apple forum and feedback from its readers.

      I always wait a few weeks before committing to an update. Usually it is when the online chatter has subsided and having done the prep work of compiling notes of what to expect. Issues reported by users provide a valuable component of identifying a problem that I might encountered.

      About Blu-ray and high definition…

      The Beta tape format provided a better video than VHS, but became another dinosaur. I believe that superior video format like a high definition is just a marketing gimmick to sell us more stuff. I ventured into my local “DVD rental chain” the other day and it was very hard to find something that I wanted to waste an hour or two on. There are too many bad movies out there.

      I am in the camp seeing that the DVD days are numbered. Without good movies, why have a physical disc.

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