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  • Newsletter Issue #530

    January 24th, 2010

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

    I’ve made it clear many times that some tech pundits write provocative content strictly to get reader comments. Sometimes they also want to push a few buttons, by carefully tailoring their wordage to address particularly controversial issues.

    Indeed, as you learned on last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, tech commentator Joe Wilcox admitted to doing just that in many of his online posts. At the same time, he impressed me as being totally serious when he explained why he feels Windows users should dump Internet Explorer and also whether he believes Apple is actually going to ditch Google’s search engine on the iPhone and replace it with Microsoft’s Bing.

    Unfortunately, Joe, a really nice guy by the way, clearly believes that a main reason that Apple lost the OS wars early on is because they allowed themselves to be supplanted by Microsoft and the other PC makers who settled on MS-DOS and later Windows. If only Apple wasn’t so closed about licensing its crown jewels. This is a myth that is conjured up every so often, but the reality is far more complicated. History shows that Apple made lots of strategic blunders way back then, but having a closed ecosystem was not necessarily one of them. In fact, that very methodology, and simple, elegant integration among many products and services, is a main reason why the iPhone and iPod have prospered.

    In the next segment of the show, keyboard manufacturer Edgar Matias presented a fascinating history of keyboard design and updated you on the company’s newest products, including the 2010 version of the famous Tactile Pro. A review of Edgar’s revised keyboard appears later in this issue.

    In an extended segment during the second half of the episode, cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of Roughly Drafted Magazine, delivered a realistic picture of the potential of Apple’s highly anticipated tablet computer and went on to explain why Google’s Android platform provides little in the way of innovation.

    This week on our other show, The Paracast, paranormal investigator David M. Roundtree, of the New Jersey Paranormal Resource Group, explores the complicated subject of hauntings and the hard evidence he’s collected to demonstrate that such things occur.

    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.” We’ve also added a selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show.

    OF APPLE VERSUS GOOGLE VERSUS MICROSOFT

    Depending on which version of the conventional wisdom you choose to believe, Apple is engaged in a battle to the death with Google and Microsoft. With the former, it’s mostly about smartphones, although Google is also working on a desktop operating system. When it comes to the latter, it’s the eternal conflict between the Mac and the PC, although Steve Jobs admitted long ago that Microsoft won the operating system wars.

    Adding to the impression that Apple and Google are at loggerheads is the fact that the latter’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, resigned from the former’s board last year because of existing and potential future conflicts. Certainly he’d have to recuse himself from any meeting involving mobile device strategy, operating system plans, and that wouldn’t leave much room for anything else.

    With Microsoft, those famous Mac versus PC ads clearly identify one of Apple’s biggest enemies. Even though it’s highly unlikely the Mac OS will ever supplant Windows in our lifetime — at least not before both are replaced by something perhaps even now being devised in someone’s garage — Apple delights in poking fun at the failings of Windows.

    At the same time, these corporate differences are all business, not personal. It doesn’t prevent Steve Jobs from occasionally having dinner with Bill Gates — as he admitted to doing during one Macworld Expo keynote — nor stop them from appearing together on stage and reminiscing. After all these years, it may well be that Jobs and Gates have developed a sort of friendship and there’s clearly a degree of admiration between each of these PC industry pioneers.

    In recent interviews, for example, Gates had high praise for Apple and its sense of elegant innovation. Sure, Gates wants Microsoft to continue to dominate the industry, but you have to separate the two. It is possible for two competing companies to be civil to one another, and, in fact, cooperate when it is in their best interests. And it’s surely possible for executives to have personal friendships with people who work at rival companies.

    So we have Microsoft running the Mac Business Unit, which is the largest independent group of Mac developers. Even though I expect many of you would prefer to see iWork take over the office suite market on the Mac platform, it’s a sure thing that Microsoft Office remains number one, and having a pretty decent version on our favored platform is a good thing. Lest we forget, the core applications in Office, such as Excel and Word, were first created for the Mac.

    As I said, it’s all business. If Office for the Mac continues to deliver good profits to Microsoft, they will continue to develop the product. If it begins to fail, you can bet Microsoft will abandon it just as rapidly as they’ve abandoned other Mac products through the years.

    Now there are also rumors, totally unconfirmed, that Apple is seriously considering the possibility of dumping Google on the iPhone and replacing it with Microsoft’s Bing search engine. But don’t forget that Yahoo! is already there, and since Yahoo! will soon incorporate Bing’s technology, it makes plenty of sense for adding the latter as an option. There’s even a Bing app for the iPhone, in case you want to test the waters.

    Of course, Microsoft isn’t doing this to be nice. It’s all about building market share and gaining revenue from the ad placements on a Bing search page. Apple can easily offer a choice, and let you and I decide which one to use.

    As far as Google is concerned, the prevailing impression that they are gunning for the iPhone with Android is only partly true. They are actually gunning to put their ad-driven content on as many smartphones as possible. If Android delivers more ad revenue to them, fine, but their initial target was actually Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platform.

    Here’s what the Wikipedia entry says about how Google got involved in a smartphone OS: “In July 2005, Google acquired Android, Inc., a small startup company based in Palo Alto, California, USA. Android’s co-founders who went to work at Google included Andy Rubin (co-founder of Danger), Rich Miner (co-founder of Wildfire Communications, Inc.), Nick Sears (once VP at T-Mobile), and Chris White (headed design and interface development at WebTV). At the time, little was known about the functions of Android, Inc. other than that they made software for mobile phones. This began rumors that Google was planning to enter the mobile phone market, although it was unclear what function it might perform in that market.”

    In 2005, the iPhone was but another unfulfilled rumor about a future Apple product, but Google was invested in staying huge steps ahead of Microsoft in as many areas as possible. Not to be shut out of the burgeoning smartphone market, Google acquired Android. The alleged fight to the death between Android and the iPhone came later.

    However, Google’s original and primary target, Microsoft, has been the biggest loser, with the market share of Windows Mobile fading fast. HTC, one of the larger suppliers of products incorporating Microsoft’s OS, is now one of the main providers of Android hardware.

    In all this, however, remember that all of these complicated corporate maneuvers are mainly about market share and profits. Where appropriate, Apple, Google and Microsoft will work together in various ways. Otherwise, they will compete as vigorously as possible. And so it goes.

    DO YOU REMEMBER APPLE’S EXTENDED KEYBOARD?

    If you were using personal computers a couple of decades ago, you no doubt observed how keyboards have evolved, or as some might suggest, devolved. You see, in those days, it wasn’t unusual to spend roughly $150 for a fully-outfitted keyboard, complete with the exquisite numeric keypad and function keys.

    The very best of those devices, such as the Apple Extended Keyboard, offered supreme comfort, rivaling the best electric typewriters of old. You could type fast, with a smooth, solid touch, with each letter delivering a resounding “click.”

    Those keyboards of old had mechanical switches, with lots of metal parts. Today, most use plastic this and plastic that, and manufacturers have gone from traditional switches to the membrane type, which makes them extremely cheap to build and sell. Indeed, you can get a perfectly serviceable keyboard at any computer store or consumer electronics outlet for as little as $10.

    Well, serviceable, yes, but don’t expect much in the way of longevity. If the individual keys don’t stop working, expect that the labeling will soon fade, particularly on the keycaps you use most often. Indeed, I’ve seen keyboards selling for upwards of $100 suffering from the very same symptom, clearly evidence the manufacturer didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the imprinting process.

    Apple’s input devices have been a mixed bag. After the Extended Keyboard’s success, the Extended Keyboard II built upon the original with greater comfort and quieter keys. Some regard it as better than the original, although I realize some of you might disagree. Then came the Apple Design Keyboard, which eschewed mechanical for membrane, but was much cheaper, another symptom of the unfortunate downgrade in Apple hardware quality in the 1990s.

    Today, Apple has an aluminum-clad keyboard lineup, with flat top keys that provide a feel reminiscent of the MacBook. Indeed, you sometimes wonder whether Apple’s goal is to make switching from desktop to note-book as seamless as possible when it comes to input devices. Certainly the touch features of the Magic Mouse are largely derived from portable computer trackpads.

    Meantime, keyboard maker Edgar Matias has carved out a market for his company by providing alternatives to the traditional keyboard designs. Consider his halfkeyboard, which allows for touch typing using one hand. Certainly this product is useful not just for working in tiny confines where a full-sized keyboard might be a bit much, but for people who have accessibility problems and can only use one hand for typing.

    His company’s flagship device, however, is the Tactile Pro, a smart reimagining of the original Extended Keyboard. Since the key switches are based on the original Alps design used by Apple, the responsiveness is very, very close. Version three is packaged in a thick shiny plastic case colored in an attractive smoky white.

    Matias is extremely meticulous in his designs, and the latest Tactile Pro has three USB 2.0 ports and adds two key features that clearly fit into the “why didn’t they think of this before?” category. First is the decision to imprint the alternate characters on the keycaps, the ones you access via Option or Option-Shift. So you no longer have to hunt for a keyboard chart or search your memory to figure out where such characters as a copyright symbol and foreign accents are to be found. In addition, the lettering is laser-etched, so the grease your fingers generate won’t cause them to fade over time.

    The newest Tactile Pro provides superlative comfort and smooth typing with unparalleled accuracy. You’ll just delight in the solid response you get from a product clearly built to a high standard of quality that few competitors can match. At $149, it may seem unduly expensive, but it’s worth every penny. You’ll thank Matias years later when your Tactile Pro is still clicking away, where other keyboards have long since been consigned to the trash heap.

    If I would wish for anything, it would be backlit keys, similar to what you see on an Apple note-book. Matias is working on that, but certainly the added functionality will mean a higher price tag. Bluetooth wireless capability is also being considered, but don’t forget you’ll give up the USB ports if you want to ditch the wires. But frankly, I don’t mind the physical connection to my Mac, since it’s part and parcel of the Tactile Pro’s image of old fashioned elegance.

    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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    3 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #530”

    1. dfs says:

      I owned an original Mathias Tactile Pro. At first it was great, good clicky positive touch very like the old Apple Extended (albeit a good deal louder — Mathias had a lot to learn about damping). For a while I loved it. But it turned out to have a major problem. Design-wise it was a slavish copy of the old plastic transparent-top Apple one, and, like it, was loaded with dirt traps and collected a lot of gunk only a CSI team could love. And the transparent top put all this crap on display like a museum exhibit. Came the time when keys started failing, and Mathias refused to honor the warrantee — on the grounds it was dirty! As if this were my fault and not a design flaw. I see from Gene’s link that the new model seems redesigned specifically to fix this design flaw (I guess they had a sufficient number of product returns that they finally came out of denial and realized they had a problem on their hands), but since Mathias did such a poor job of standing behind its product, I don’t think I care to do any more business with them. But I found just as good an alternative in the Das Keyboard Professional model. It’s in the same price range, is super-easy to keep clean, also has mechanical key switches, comes with two USB ports, and the Das Keyboard people seem friendly and honorable in their dealings (when I told them my Mathias story they solemnly swore they would never dream of doing something similar).

    2. Edgar Matias says:

      @dfs, sorry you weren’t happy with the original Tactile Pro, though I’m glad you did eventually find something you like.

      Version 1 was very much in keeping with the design style of the time — with lots of transparent plastic that often acted as a dust trap — but I think calling it a design flaw is overstating it. Is a white suit a design flaw?

      As noted, to address users’ concerns, we did make version 3 of the keyboard more dirt resistant and easier to clean.

      As for the warranty, we try very hard to go the extra mile to service our customers and repair, replace, or refund any product they’re not happy with. However, the warranty does not cover dirt. Just as it is not reasonable to expect BMW or Ford to replace your car if it gets too dirty, we also do not replace dirty Tactile Pros. Believe me, we’ve seen some REALLY dirty keyboards (mud dirty) sent back for replacement under warranty.

      Regarding the Das Keyboard, while also mechanical, it isn’t really designed to work on Mac. The newer models have an Fn key in place of the left Option key. This would drive most Mac users nuts. Plus, they use Cherry switches, while most Mac users prefer the Alps switches that Apple used to use.

      However, if you’re happy with the Das, that’s all that counts. Variety is good.

      Best regards,

      Edgar

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