• Newsletter Issue #593

    April 11th, 2011

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    For a computer sold to us as something that “just works,” I suppose troubleshooting and maintenance books, not to mention all those magazine articles and online blogs, seem a bit much. Having written some of those books myself, I was always amazed at how some authors can fill 1,000 pages or more with such advice.

    Well, I think writers such as Joe Kissell will agree with me that a set of fairly basic rules of the road should be sufficient to keep your Mac purring without serious trouble. So on this week’s episode of the The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we had Joe on once again to talk about all this great work. He’s author of such books as “Take Control of Maintaining Your Mac: Second Edition,” which crisply details the regular upkeep process for your Mac, and some basic troubleshooting techniques. He keeps his advice short and sweet. You know what you need, with the requirement of filling the book with lots of extraneous information that has little value for most of you.

    In the next segment, Karen Combs, from the Linksys division of Cisco, introduced their new line of E-series wireless routers, some of which incorporate the ability to add a network drive and stream multimedia.

    Macworld Editorial Director Jason Snell joined us to talk about responsible reviewing of Macs and other tech gear, with an emphasis on Consumer Reports. As you know, I’m no great fan of CR and its reviewing methods, particularly when it comes to personal computers and mobile gadgets. At the tail end of the interview, Jason put on his TV reviewing cap to cover an upcoming fantasy show with great prospects.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Former Governor Jesse Ventura, a conspiracy theorist and author of “63 Documents the Government Doesn’t Want You to Read,” who talks about the Kennedy assassination and other fascinating conspiracies in modern history.

    Coming April 17: Gene and Chris present Benjamin Radford, an editor for Skeptical Inquirer, and author of “Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore.” Are reports of such creatures real, fanciful — what?

    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.

    SHOULD YOU BELIEVE INDUSTRY ANALYST PROJECTIONS?

    A number of companies are in the business of trying to predict future sales of tech gear, but you wonder whether they actually use computers to crunch the numbers and come up projections, or they are taking out their crystal balls and ouija boards to divine the truth about future events. Or just talking through their hats.

    If you recall, one analyst last year projected some five million tablet computers would be sold in 2010, even after initial iPad sales had already come surprisingly close to that overall number. I’d think that if I delivered such a pathetic outlook to my employers, I’d be severely chastised, or be left looking for a new job. Then again, I suppose you could say the very same thing about product managers who continue to launch gear that fails. Where’s the accountability?

    For example, there’s a report quoting the Gartner Group suggesting that Google Android OS handsets will claim 49 percent of the market by 2015, and, somehow, and I don’t know how, the Windows Phone platform from Microsoft will attain second place, way ahead of the iPhone.

    Now I presume that there are some clear assumptions in making this proclamation, the major one of which is the expected impact of that recent deal with Nokia and Microsoft. By the end of this year or early in 2012, Windows Phone 7 will take over the default spot on Nokia smartphones. I suppose the theory goes that, since Nokia is the largest handset maker on the planet, Microsoft’s mobile OS is assured of success. Well, at least that’s how the theory goes.

    Understand that I do not claim to be an industry analyst, so I don’t have the tools of the trade at hand to perform prediction miracles. Well, that assumes they are capable of performing miracles. But I rather think they are being paid to make guesses based on what they expect to be the trends in the industry, or engaging in a little wishful thinking, depending on the client.

    But consider this: Before Microsoft got into the game, Nokia’s attempts to deliver quality smartphones with the Symbian OS were failing big time. That’s why they were so willing to partner with Microsoft, not to mention the curious fact that Nokia’s CEO used to be a Microsoft executive. Was he a stalking horse too, or was this simply a final act of desperation?

    Also consider the fact that Windows Phone 7, while a decent looking and performing OS, is a huge also-ran when compared to Android and the iOS. Such companies as Samsung haven’t done so well with gear that incorporates the Microsoft mobile platform. It’s not as if customers are clamoring for these gadgets, so what makes it so attractive to Nokia?

    More to the point, though, was Gartner taken in by the PR people at Microsoft and Nokia? Do they really expect Windows Phone 7 hardware to, all of a sudden, take off, while what Microsoft has done up till now since the iPhone came along has floundered?

    Besides, what are we to think about the plight of Nokia’s competitors. Nokia is getting billions of dollars of cold, hard cash from Microsoft. The other companies pay licensing fees. Of course, we all know that Microsoft is not above double-crossing their partners when it’s deemed appropriate for the needs of the moment.

    It’s also true that previous predictions from Gartner have been way off the mark in many respects. If they haven’t been able to accurately predict smartphone sales and market share up till now, why trust them to be able to do better for 2015? It’s also true that Gartner had to make a whole set of new assumptions to arrive at this amazing pronouncement, if you want to call it amazing.

    Certainly the climate might seem favorable for Microsoft and, for that matter, Google. But I know that if I were paying Gartner to deliver predictions, I’d be hugely skeptical of the quality of their product in light of their previous failures. I know that if I don’t get the service I pay for from a company, I cancel, maybe even ask for my money back if I just signed up.

    I’m not about to say that Gartner should go out of business, or that customers should give them the proverbial heave-ho. That’s pushing it. It may well be that trends in the smartphone industry are so unpredictable that no company can hope to deliver accurate results. But maybe just tossing darts at a board containing percentage ratings will deliver results that are just as accurate.

    Now that’s the ticket. Maybe I should set myself up as an industry analyst and pretend to deliver reports about forthcoming sales trends and market shares. However, I freely admit that I am utterly unqualified for that job; I’d be cheating my clients to hang out a shingle and start taking money for that sort of analysis, or any analysis for that matter. But there’s also no litmus test for an industry analyst. There are no state or federal licensing requirements that I know of, which means anyone with the balls to do it can make a play at building a decent clientele. Perhaps they’ll even succeed where Gartner has failed. After all, if it’s all just guesswork, or betting on the law of averages, anyone can do it.

    The worst problem, though, is that an uncritical media will usually take such pronouncements as somehow accurate. They won’t check the history to see of an industry analyst has a good track record, or if they do, they won’t report that, in the past, their predictions have utterly failed to match reality.

    But I think you readers know better, that you should take such prognostications with a complete grain of salt. In fact, I think Apple couldn’t predict how well the iPhone and iPad would fare in the  marketplace, although the problems in building enough product may have more to do with manufacturing constraints than anything else.

    Meantime, I suppose the Gartner report is good for a laugh or two. But maybe I should bring a psychic onto my paranormal radio show and see how they fare at guessing trends in the tech industry.

    THE MAC OS REPORT: A PITCH FOR A BETTER BUILT-IN MAINTENANCE SYSTEM

    First, let me make it crystal clear that I’m not advocating the end of third-party Mac OS maintenance apps. There should be plenty of room for independent developers to deliver on features that aren’t offered in Mac OS X, and Apple should continue to accept and, in fact, encourage the practice.

    At the same time, there are loads of features and settings embedded within Mac OS X that are simply not available via the graphical interface. If you know your Terminal stuff, and you’re willing to experiment (with a ready backup at hand), you’ll find a treasure trove of useful functions to alter app settings and to configure the Mac in ways that will allow it to activate all sorts of functions to resolve problems.

    In fact, many of the maintenance utilities that fix permissions, dump caches, and perform all other feats of magic, are doing little more than putting a pretty face upon built-in functions that would otherwise require skills at the command line.

    Now in the early days of Mac OS X, even Apple expected you to visit the Terminal from time to time to fix a problem. You can certainly find loads of stuff online, and in books, blogs, and magazine articles, which afford all sorts of tips on how to fix what ails your Mac via the command line. Or get yourself in a heap of trouble if you don’t know what you’re doing, because the command line usually doesn’t give you warnings about the consequences of mistakenly deleting, for example, a file or folder, or performing loads of other critical processes.

    While I understand that Apple, unlike Microsoft, doesn’t want to confuse customers with elaborate arrays of system settings to fiddle with, there ought to be an intermediate step. After all, Apple has paid huge sums of money to developers to incorporate these features. Yet they remain mostly undocumented, and not accessible unless you have command line skills, or install one of those special utilities, such as Cocktail, Snow Leopard Cache Cleaner (which actually performs dozens and dozens of other functions too), and a host of others.

    What this would mean is a Maintenance category in System Preferences, which would offer you a reasonable set of easily grasped functions that won’t destroy your Mac if you fail to observe special cautions. Apple might even offer an “Advanced” function, prefaced with loads of cautions, check boxes and buttons, for users who are willing to throw caution to the wind, and do what they want to do to access special preferences and troubleshooting methods — again without the Terminal requirement.

    Indeed, it may make sense just to have some functions, such as repairing permissions, run automatically in the background in the moments after you boot your Mac, or at a given time each day when your computer has been idle for a period of time. You wouldn’t want to have the system slow down because of background tasks you know nothing about. Such tasks already run courtesy of built-in cron (or scheduled) log cleaning routines.

    Yes, that’s the ticket. A computer that “just works” ought to perform a reasonable level of system maintenance all by itself. Sure, maybe you would have the option — perhaps in that Advanced menu — to disable one more scheduled actions. But you shouldn’t have to think about any of this at all. Your Mac should always be in a top state of health without forcing you to engage in preventive maintenance. When was the last time you did preventive maintenance on your TV, other than to use a cleaning cloth on the screen? And, no, I’m not talking about component failure, which is the province of repair shops to deal with.

    Sure, some of you might liken the Mac to a motor vehicle, where you need to perform routine maintenance tasks, such as changing the oil and replacing the breaks, as needed. Even then, more and more cars will actually provide warning messages when maintenance is required, so you can dispense with a fixed schedule.

    However, motor vehicles are still highly mechanical machines, despite the onboard computers and extravagant electronics. Other than your Mac’s hard drive, or optical drive, very few mechanical components are involved. Besides, as solid state drives become more and more prevalent on Macs, there will be one more maintenance step that won’t be needed, other than to handle possible directory damage.

    And, as I said, there will and should be plenty of opportunities for Mac developers to expand on Apple’s tools and, of course, continue to make a living from their work.

    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
    Business Development: Gil James Bavel
    Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis



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    2 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #593”

    1. Brett says:

      Aside for keeping the interface simple and non-intimidating for the average user, another reason for hiding certain settings may be the additional cost to fully test and support heavily customized systems. The more options are exposed, the more potential system configurations there are. Fragmentation is a nightmare.

      While Apple could certainly claim that a user was warned about changing “Advanced” settings, that will be of no consolation to the user who has actually screwed up his system. The harm to Apple’s reputation could outweigh the selling point of power-user features.

      Apple must balance the needs of the many against the desires of the technically adventurous.

      • @Brett, Points taken, but if Apple is going to invest in developing features for Mac OS X, they should consider documenting at least some of them, testing them, and adding them to the GUI.

        It’s not that they don’t have the money. 🙂

        Peace,
        Gene

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