• Newsletter Issue #503

    July 19th, 2009


    No, Microsoft didn’t base the name of their Bing search engine on the late actor and crooner Bing Crosby. Though with Microsoft, anything is, I suppose, possible. It’s not as if being forward looking is in their DNA. But while Bing has garnered a few positive reviews along the way, whether it’ll do any better than its many predecessors is an open question. It’s just possible people are trying it out, which explains a minor boost in Microsoft’s search engine popularity, but if they don’t see any clear advantage over Google, they’ll go back to Googling.

    Now on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we returned to “The David Biedny Zone,” where our Special Correspondent explored some simple searches on Microsoft’s Bing search engine, and then compared them to the results achieved with Google. When Bing failed to deliver high resolution photos of an apple pie, David pronounced it “useless,” but I suppose it’s undergoing further improvement. At least I hope so, though the renewed rumors of a new search advertising deal with Yahoo! demonstrates they are definitely hedging their beds.

    Later all during the session, David discussed what he feels is the real world impact of netbooks, and whether so-called “cloud computing” will return the computing world to the past, when “thin clients” were the rage.

    Author and commentator Kirk McElhearn was on hand to bring you up to date on his transition from a Mac Pro to a Mac mini.  He also recounted a surprisingly favorable support experience with — believe it or not — Dell! The future of delivering music and videos chopped up into ones and zeros was also  explored.

    This week on our other radio show, The Paracast, we introduce Fortean writer Christopher O’Brien, who 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.

    Coming August 2: Learn about the amazing life story of writer, producer and modern mystic Walter Starcke.

    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.


    During that Department of Justice antitrust trial against Microsoft, poor, beleaguered Bill Gates claimed that the company he co-founded only wanted the freedom to “innovate.” Now this innovate mantra has been part and parcel of Microsoft’s pitch to customers, competitors and government agencies for years, as most of you know.

    The question that comes to the fore, though, is just what does Microsoft mean by that word. Now if we simply go by the conventional definition, we get: “make changes in something established, esp. by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.”

    All right, that’s simple enough, and I’m sure that most of you will agree with the standard meaning. That is except for Microsoft, which seems to be unable to deliver “new methods, ideas, or products.”

    Take Windows, which was nothing but a knock-off of the Mac OS, based in part on technology they actually licensed from Apple in a foolish deal crafted between Gates and then Apple CEO John Scully. In retrospect, Scully created a monster, one that came to dominate the PC industry in ways that were not always beneficial.

    Over the years, Apple tried to litigate itself out of that unfortunate deal, without success, and finally gave up with that historic agreement between Jobs and Gates, where Microsoft invested $150 million in its fiercest rival.

    Almost every time a company announced some new operating system initiative — and that included Jobs’ own NeXT Inc.  before it was acquired by Apple — Microsoft would respond by saying, in effect, why bother because they will soon come out with the very same feature and maybe even make it better.

    As Microsoft’s sordid history demonstrates, sometimes they did deliver a hollow imitation of the real thing, and sometimes the technology was never produced. There was, for example, no practical application of their alleged Cairo operating system, something they promised for years before it vanished from their press releases.

    More recently, Microsoft pulled some of the same stunts with their failed Windows Vista. As the long gestation period grew longer and longer, promised features, such as a new file system, went by the wayside, as Longhorn morphed into Vista and was finally released.

    I suppose some might call it a crippled system, since you had to pay hundreds of dollars more for the “Ultimate” version for all the functions to be activated. Out of the starting gate, it was sluggish and buggy. Comparisons to Windows XP, released back in 2001, were mostly negative.

    Two years later, Windows 7 supposedly fixes the worst of Vista. But let’s not forget that computers have more or less caught up with Vista anyway, so performance issues aren’t quite as significant anymore. And in Microsoft’s best tradition of cribbing stuff from the competition, there’s even a pale imitation of Apple’s controversial Dock in Windows 7.

    This isn’t to say that Apple doesn’t borrow a feature when it suits them, but they still try to present it in a new and different way, which is certainly in keeping with the concept of innovation.

    Microsoft’s hardware initiatives have fared worse. When it’s PlaysForSure partners couldn’t beat the pants off the upstart iPod, Microsoft abandoned them and built the Zune. It wasn’t even assembled from scratch. They just modified a Toshiba Gigabeat player, another failed product, and added a revised if busy interface.

    Microsoft admitted they hadn’t quite caught up with the iPod, but promised to do so in a year or two. That excuse might have worked if Apple stood still, but we know that isn’t quite how it played out. In any case, the Zune was a failure from Day One. There’s supposed to be a new version this fall that will have its variation on Multi-Touch, shades of the iPod touch, and will add HD radio.

    Now whatever advantages HD radio might offer over analog AM and FM, it has yet to prove itself as a sustainable format. Maybe that’ll happen, but I trust the folks behind that technology aren’t pinning their hopes on the next-generation Zune.

    When it comes to the iPhone, competitors are struggling just to keep up. The smartphone didn’t really become a consumer-friendly device until Apple got involved. Up till then, such devices as the RIM BlackBerry were mostly the playthings of businesses, though I suppose some consumers adapted them for more personal uses as they got cheaper.

    RIM has attempted to adopt Multi-Touch and other iPhone goodies for its own devices, and Palm is basically betting the company on the Pre. Apple’s true ace-in-the-hole, though, is the surprisingly popular App Store. Few predicted that there would be over 60,000 apps available and 1.5 billion downloads in its first year. So rather than try to do Apple one better, other companies are attempting to build their own imitations of the App Store.

    This is not to say that there were none before. Palm, for example, has long had an online resource from which to buy applications for its handhelds. Only thing is that they were usually too expensive and of limited functionality.

    Apple, you see, has the experience and vast infrastructure of iTunes to build on. Sure there have been occasional network issues, and their method of approving new apps can take far too long, and often lacks predictable outcomes. But they are improving, while other companies can’t even keep up.

    Other cell phone makers, like Microsoft, believe innovation is the practice of imitating another company’s products in order to match or beat their success. But I prefer the traditional dictionary definition.


    A few years ago, when I was interviewing gadget guru Steve “Mr. Gadget” Kruschen, he introduced me to one of the early VoIP startups, Vonage. This was the first major attempt to liberate you and I from conventional copper-based telephone systems. Up till then, wireless phones were meant to supplement, not replace, your landline.

    Indeed, Vonage had all the basic ingredients you’d check from the option list at your telecom company, such as Caller ID, Call Waiting, Call Forwarding, Voicemail and lots, lots more. Vonage offered all the standard features in a pretty substantial bundle, including free long distance to the U.S. and Canada, for just $24.95. How can you beat that?

    Well, there were limitations to the technology. You needed an active broadband connection, and if that connection was interrupted for any reason, another number to which to refer your calls, meaning a landline or cell number. That is, unless you preferred to just check for messages when your service returned. But when it came to 911 calls, there was a problem, one addressed by government mandate.

    So now, most VoIP providers offer some sort of E911 service, so you can place a call in the event of an emergency and be assured the police dispatch office would know your location without you having to give it. Sure, the VoIP providers exact a few dollars extra month for the privilege, but it’s worth it. And, in case you asked, Skype, though it has extra-cost services to make and receive calls to conventional telephone systems, offers no support for 911. At least not yet.

    The traditional telecoms, and even the cable companies, have tried to imitate Vonage’s success, but haven’t done so well. Do you remember AT&T’s Callvantage? Probably not, because it wasn’t very popular and is no longer active.

    These days, the large telecoms are pinning their hopes and dreams on wireless. Indeed, lots of young people these days, including my son Grayson, only use cell phones. No, I’m not going that far.

    Unfortunately, Vonage’s customer support has been hit or miss — more often miss — and they’ve been slow to add new features. Currently, my main phone carrier is ITP, short for Internet Telephone Provider. The plan I use, Global Unlimited 2, costs just $48.99 a month, and includes free calls to 35 countries beyond the standard U.S. and Canadian lineup. There are additional features, such as music on hold and even a Blacklist, so you can block calls from people you do not want to contact you. You can use your imagination about the significance of that feature.

    Call quality with ITP remains superb, and I can recall only one or two short interruptions in service in the months I’ve used them. Customer service is also first-rate. At worst, they are a tad slow in porting your number from another service. Some systems can do it in a week or two, but ITP usually takes three or four weeks. On the other hand, I gather that system is due for revision, so it can be done in minutes.

    In fact, the number porting operation should always take minutes, but I suspect it remains mired in red tape, as requests go from phone company, to broadband network, and then to another phone company.

    To be fair, I’m not totally liberated of a landline. I do keep one number with Cox Communications for faxing. Although ITP a special fax service, the VoIP versions can sometimes be unreliable and usually slow down transmission speeds. Besides, the cost of a basic Cox connection isn’t so much higher that a switchover is worth it right now. But that time will come soon enough.


    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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