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Newsletter Issue #533

THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL LIVE RADIO UPDATE

The concerns published about Apple’s iPad have taken confusing twists and turns. At first, they critics pounced on the lack of certain key features, in the same fashion that they complained about the iPod and then the iPhone. Apple cannot possibly succeed unless they sell gear stuffed with features that customers may or may not need. After all, that’s how the rest of the consumer electronics industry works, so Apple is clearly on the wrong side of history.

This is the reason that so many competing products are touted as potential “killers” when pitted against any of Apple’s mobile devices. As you know, of course, this hasn’t quite happened. Apple took over the digital music player business. In the far more cluttered smartphone space, sales of the iPhone grew some 100% from last year, according to Apple’s most recent quarterly sales figures. The iPhone sits just behind the BlackBerry, which is available in many more models and from far more carriers than Apple’s product.

So our discussions about the prospects for the iPad continue. On last week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, it’s was  all iPad once again, at least part of the time.

Columnist Peter Cohen, of The Loop, explained some of the reasons why an iPad is number one on his shopping list, and then discussed some of the new gadget’s perceived shortcomings.

The subject turned to security as prolific author Joe Kissell, author of the “Mac Security Bible,” listed the whys and wherefores of Mac OS X security, both for the “client” or desktop versions of the operating system and the server edition. After hearing this episode, one listener announced that he had decided to turn on his Mac’s firewall at long last. A word to the wise, even though the Mac remains highly resilient to malware.

In the third segment of the show, cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, of “Roughly Drafted Magazine,” talked about the reasons the iPad’s critics just don’t get it, as he listed some of the most significant features of Apple’s new tablet computing device.

This week on our other show, The Paracast, paranormal researcher Micah A. Hanks, author of “Magic, Mysticism and the Molecule: The Search for Sentient Intelligence from Other Worlds,” explores the incredible things we don’t understand about our universe. During the latter part of the episode, David will reveal more of his personal experiences.

Coming February 21: UFO experiencer David Andrew reports on a lifetime of sightings and encounters with mysterious creatures. He also has severe criticisms to offer about some of the well-known flying saucer contactees.

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.

JUST WHAT IS MICROSOFT’S GAME?

Someone once said you keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. So we have a situation where Apple’s biggest rival — not including Google of course — remains Microsoft, yet Microsoft continues to create products that run on the Mac. There’s even talk of a version of Office that will be designed specifically for the iPad, no doubt to compete with iWork.

In announcing Office 2011 for the Mac, due out before the end of the year, Microsoft once again boasted about the arrival of Outlook for the Mac platform after all these years. You have to wonder why they’re so late to the party and chose instead to saddle us with the mostly inferior Entourage.

What Microsoft doesn’t want you to remember, however, is that there was once another Mac version of Outlook, an expanded version of Outlook Express, which was available towards the end of the Classic Mac OS era. However, it doesn’t matter so much what features that app contained and what it lacked. You have to wonder why it has taken so long for Outlook to return, and why Microsoft wants us to pretend its predecessor didn’t exist.

It’s fair to say that Office has been a major cash cow for Microsoft both on the Windows and Mac platforms. Indeed, it’s reported that sales of the Mac version remain in the hundreds of millions of dollars, which is surely a huge incentive for its continued existence. At the same time, the Mac development team, known as the Mac Business Unit, is reputed to be the largest collection of Mac programmers on the planet outside of Apple.

Despite making a major programming commitment, Mac users have had a love/hate relationship with Office. The 2008 suite, for example, lacked support for Visual Basic for Applications, Microsoft’s powerful macro tool that was essential for complicated format setups in both Excel and Word. Without that support, documents containing those macros would open in a crippled form, causing major inconvenience for some of you.

No doubt that’s the reason why sales of the most recent version of Office may not have been as high as they could have been. But Microsoft’s excuse seemed little more than corporate spin.

You see, their development team supposedly would have required another year to port VBA to Apple’s programming environment so it would run native on Intel processors. Maybe, but it seems difficult to understand why one component is so much more complicated than the rest of the product to deliver in Universal form.

But even if you could survive without VBA, performance of Office 2008 was tepid at best. It actually ran slower on PowerPC-based Macs, and didn’t do so well on Intel-based models, even though they have much heftier processing capability.

Then again, Microsoft has traditionally had problems making their apps run quickly on Macs, particularly in the years following the famous Word 5.1, which many still regard as the best version ever.

Now the promotional tidbits published so far about Office 2011 for the Mac don’t mention the return of VBA, although it was promised for that version. Instead, Microsoft is busy promoting a Mac version of their controversial ribbon, one of the more irritating and utterly unnecessary features embedded in the Windows edition. This comes in the wake of a half-baked version for Office 2008, but it’s typical of Microsoft’s affinity to beat bad ideas to death hoping to find a semblance of life in them.

When it comes to Outlook, Microsoft really has no good excuse for delivering a crippled Mac email/contact manager. They could have produced a Mac app that was fully conversant with their Exchange email system from Day One. Instead, they delivered partial support in Office 2004, and somewhat better — but still not complete — support in Office 2008. However, you still couldn’t import email files from the Windows version, which only made it more difficult for their customers to migrate to the Mac. That capability will appear in Outlook for the Mac.

It doesn’t really matter what excuses Microsoft’s spin machine devises for giving Mac users half a loaf. Little of it rings true. Indeed, it would seem to require fewer resources to simply match the Mac and Windows versions of apps feature for feature than to devise alternative functions for each. Somehow Adobe manages this worthy task in large part in most of its Creative Suite products, and that’s a far smaller company than Microsoft.

Then again, maybe Microsoft has finally seen the handwriting on the wall. Perhaps they’ve come to realize that there is no earthly way they will kill Apple or the Mac. Besides, they are probably more concerned about Google’s existence these days, as the latter continues to encroach into Microsoft’s cherished operating system territory with the free Chrome OS.

Maybe generic PCs won’t benefit, but all those cheap netbooks that pretty much saved the industry last year will run far better on a slimmer Linux-based environment than on a version of Windows 7 that’s bereft of some of its visual eye candy.

In addition to the improved Mac office suite support and a possible iPad version, there are still rampant rumors that Apple seeks to remove Google from the iPhone and replace it with Bing. The question would, of course, be why. Google supposedly contributes $100 million dollars to Apple’s coffers as kickbacks for embedding their search engine in Safari. Maybe Microsoft is offering more? Could Apple be starting a bidding war between Google and Microsoft to have a presence on the Mac, iPhone and iPad?

In the meantime, I’m not going to take any of Microsoft’s claims about the greatness of Office 2011 for the Mac seriously until I actually use a copy of the released version. In the meantime, I’ll give those claims a rating of sub-zero.

WHAT ABOUT OUTSOURCING YOUR BUSINESS EMAIL?

It never fails to amaze me that some small business owners continue to rely on their ISP for business mail. This hardly makes sense, since you can’t get an address that matches your custom domain, not to mention lack of support for critical features such as IMAP. The latter puts your messages on the email server, so you can easily sync your messages when using multiple computers and mobile devices.

Now there are several convenient ways to get business email accounts set up. If you set up a business Web site with a hosting company or your own server, it will come with email as well. Usually the setup will work all right, although spam filtering tends to be inferior, usually because these systems employ basic open source software that requires lots and lots of custom configuration to work efficiently.

Sure, you can operate your own server, but whether it’s Mac OS X Server or Linux, the same basic tools are being utilized, usually based on SpamAssassin. If you know your servers, you can customize spam filtering and add an anti-virus tool to protect the Windows users in your company, but there are inexpensive alternatives that will save you lots of time and headaches.

In recent years, I’ve experimented with some of those alternatives to test their viability for a small business.

Of course, there’s Google Apps. Both the free and paid versions let you use your business domain names, but I wasn’t enamored of the eccentricities in the user interface or setup routines. I’m less enamored at Google’s efforts to enforce default social networking to people who didn’t request the feature, but I’m pleased they seem to be scaling back as of this writing.

The most flexible email alternatives come from some of the same companies that host Web sites. The more prominent of these services come from Go Daddy — the same company who believes that ads featuring attractive race drivers somehow equate with high quality Web services — 1&1 Internet and Rackspace. The latter acquired Webmail.us, one of my favorites, several years ago.

When it comes to Go Daddy, their motto appears to be “bait and switch.” They offer some good deals, but you need to buy extras, such as the ability to forward email to a different address, to properly flesh out the package. Suddenly the good deal doesn’t seem so good. Worse, when I once tried one of their email plans, offering unlimited mailbox storage, I ran into problems with a flaky spam filter that stripped the contents of alert messages from our forums. Worse, Apple Mail would sometimes time out sending a message, and Go Daddy’s customer service seemed unequipped to manage the problem. I assume the situation is better now, but I’m not apt to want to test their services anymore. No other company that I know about pulls such low-ball pricing stunts.

Rackspace has a pretty good deal, offering $1 mailboxes with a storage capacity of up to 10GB each. The online setup interface is somewhat ungainly, but the most troubling issue is that they’ve had some notable service outages in the past year. So I remain a tad skeptical, but optimistic that their network administrators have gotten a handle on the situation. This is a big company with a reputation for high quality.

The best deal, however, may be from 1&1. Their 1&1 Instant Mail service offers five 2GB mailboxes for only 99 cents per month. You have to pay for the full year up front, but does it really matter? If you need more than five, you can order up a second package, or one of their basic Web hosting packages, which start at $3.99 for the “Beginner” version. If you have lots of messages, particularly if they are laden with attachments, you may find that 2GB is restrictive. There’s also a 25GB storage limit on the account for all your active mailboxes.

However, 1&1’s powerful spam filtering system has solved at least 99.5% of my email spam issues. I don’t have to worry about the lack of a Junk filter in the iPhone version of Mail as the result. If you use their Medium or High spam filter settings, the system is adaptive. So the messages manually moved in and out of your Junk folder will be appropriately flagged by 1&1’s email servers. All the messages you receive will still be scanned, but a couple of weeks of training really yields a very high batting average, far better than any other system I’ve used.

All three systems have fairly decent Web-based email interfaces, which receive periodic feature updates. You’ll find basic calendaring and contact lists, but I still prefer Apple Mail for managing my messages. In the end, most of you will do perfectly fine with 1&1 Instant Mail. If you require larger mailboxes, Rackspace is worth considering, but maybe you’d do better to spend a little time trimming your  mailbox of the old messages you don’t need, and the attachments you’ll never open.

THE FINAL WORD

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

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