THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE
After hearing of the developments in the Middle East, and the attempts by millions of citizens to overthrow tyrants, some online and broadcast commentators have wondered whether it’s actually possible to establish a “kill switch” for the Internet to allow those despots in government to keep the local populace at bay. What this means is the ability to shut down all the networks in a single act.
Moving closer, to home, can they do that in the U.S. if the authorities deemed there was a national emergency, thus providing sufficient cause to prevent you from getting online? Well, that’s just one of the topics security expert Rich Mogull discussed on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE. Rich also offered some common sense suggestions about protecting your online privacy.
In another segment, we presented columnist Jim Dalrymple, of The Loop, who provided his sage insights into all things Apple, as he speculated about developments at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference, and the next version of the iPhone.
Laptop magazine’s Online Editorial Director, Avram Piltch, discusses Research In Motion’s troubles with building a better BlackBerry, and the shaky rollout of their PlayBook tablet. He also summarized the results of the magazine’s recent PlayBook review, and the test results weren’t pretty.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: 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.
THE APP STORE VERSUS THE COMPETITION
Put yourself in the shoes of a typical software developer who wants to make a living from the sale of apps for mobile gadgets. If it’s for a smartphone, that developer will need to decide which of the various online repositories to use, not to mention the platform that’s most appropriate to garner the highest number of actual sales.
For the iPhone, you have a choice of one. Sure, some people jailbreak their iPhones to be able to install apps and features that Apple won’t permit, but that’s a fairly small number of potential customers. The vast majority depend on the App Store for the stuff they want, so that’s probably the best place to go to make a living. However, you also have to compete with over 300,000 apps, with thousands more going up all the time. Do you even stand a chance finding a place in the sun?
So what about the Android OS? Isn’t that platform growing faster?
There’s where the rubber meets the road. Yes, it is clear that dozens and dozens of Android handsets, from several large smartphone makers, are moving at a pretty rapid clip. They cover a host of price ranges, so people who find the $199 or $299 subsidized price for an iPhone 4 a bit daunting — and don’t want to settle on the 2009 iPhone 3GS — have loads of affordable options. Some are even free, but don’t forget that two-year contractual obligation.
I also realize that some developers may chafe at Apple’s restrictions. It’s not just a matter of uploading the app, waiting for it to go live, so you can sit in your easy chair and count the vast sums of money that’ll soon be pouring into your bank account. If the app strays a little too far into controversy, or might be regarded by some as “blue,” or X-rated, Apple will say no. There’s also a large gray area where an app ought to be accepted, but is held back or receives a rejection notice. Why put up with a gatekeeper when all you want to do is make a living?
Well, in the retail world, you’re always confronting gatekeepers. The “buyers” for a store, mortar or online, will decide which products to carry in their inventories. In a physical store, there’s the matter of shelf space, and potential demand. There’s no sense stocking products that just won’t sell. For online merchants of digital files, adding links and uploading files, within the constraints of server capacity, isn’t a big deal, but Apple wants to make the download and installation process simple, not to mention making sure the app won’t crash your mobile device, or install malware.
Existing in an environment without censors may seem attractive for some of you. But does the vendor have a history of delivering profits for those who build product? Every survey out there shows that the App Store is far more profitable. Yes, the inventory is larger, but you’re not saddled with loads of ringtones, and wallpaper backdrops to befuddle customers who are seeking real gems.
More to the point, you don’t hear that many complaints anymore about app developers receiving unexpected rejection slips. With the publication of a reasonably clear set of guidelines by Apple, developers know the rules of the road, and are becoming more comfortable with building apps that will probably be accepted. Or maybe they realize that complaining to the press won’t resolve their problems.
There’s also that nasty matter of fragmentation. With the App Store, you can build for an iPhone or iPod touch and know that most iPad users can use your app too, in a smaller or doubled display window. There are also loads of apps specifically designed for the iPad, some 60,000 worth at last count. So that’s just two platforms to optimize for.
With the Android OS, there a loads of models with different hardware configurations, varying screen sizes, not to mention the fact that end users can’t always be assured they’ll be able to get OS updates. If you want the maximum distribution for your efforts, you either have to compensate for the potential differences, hitting the lowest common denominator, or build separate versions for different models.
With Apple’s iOS, updates are pushed out through iTunes on a Mac or PC as soon as they are released. Within days, users who sync their mobile gadgets will be informed of the updates, and the vast majority will have them installed on the spot. You will be assured of consistency, predictability. If the app works on your iPhone or iPad with the latest iOS version, you’ll know that, except for the earliest iPhones and iPod touches, your product will be fully compatible. In Android land, far too many users are running older versions of the OS, with no prospect of getting an update — ever.
I’m sure that Google is aware of the problems of being too open for their own good. Without controls, handset makers and wireless carriers have manipulated the interface and bundled software of Android OS gear to suit their own needs (or satisfy their greed). To make one’s handset seem unique, themes may be modified. Bundled apps might be replaced with junkware designed to sell a carrier’s services. The default search engine might be replaced with someone else’s, specifically Microsoft Bing, which will mean that Google won’t benefit from a potential source of targeted ads. Of course that matters only to Google.
In recent weeks, there have been published reports that Google is in the process of instituting controls on the degree to which licensees can mess with the Android OS. They have held back release of the source code for the tablet OS, Android 3.0, or Honeycomb. Maybe they are realizing that chaos, or fragmentation, isn’t a good thing for customers and software companies who hope to profit from app sales.
Yes, a reasonable number of apps are now delivered in both iOS and Android form, but Apple still gets the lion’s share of the submissions, not to mention the highest number of sales. Clearly customers are comfortable making purchases, and developers are delighted that the cash registers are ringing.
With demand for iOS gear still outstripping Apple’s ability to build product, it’s obvious that customers are still lusting after iPhones and iPads. The App Store by far is the most profitable environment for a developer who seriously wants to live long and prosper. What the competition must realize by now is that, just having an app repository doesn’t guarantee success for them, or the developer. That’s a message that Google appears to be slowly learning, although the App Store is still way, way ahead.
MANAGING YOUR WEB SITE
If, like hundreds of thousands of others, you want to set up a Web site for hobbies or business, no doubt you’ll be confronted with all those flashy ads offering the moon and the stars for a few dollars a month. It’s all “Unlimited,” so how can ya miss?
At the same time, you might also be confused about those expensive offers for cloud-based, VPS and dedicated. Well, here’s the real skinny: Unlimited really doesn’t mean unlimited; it’s a hype. Well, if you have a few simple pages on your site, I suppose you could get away with it, but as soon as you set up a WordPress blog, a forum, or a place for people to download your podcasts, suddenly you’ll confront roadblocks you didn’t expect.
In the fine print, those hosts who boast of service without limits reveal how they can avoid giving the store away. After all, servers cost money, bandwidth costs lots of money, and you can’t expect someone to let you use up resources for practically no money. What you’re getting for those low prices is what’s called a “shared” hosting account, which means they put a bunch of customers (from a few dozen to hundreds) on a single server. You are allowed a tiny parcel of the available resources, and if your site gets popular, suddenly you’ll hit limits you barely understood. Your site might be suspended, or they’ll offer to upgrade you to a far more expensive service plan that can better satisfy your “voracious” needs. How voracious? Well, a busy blog or forum will do it, and offering a site that provides little more than audio and video downloads (and we assume legal ones) may be altogether prohibited, despite the promise of unlimited storage.
Once you get past the realities behind all the hype you hear, there’s the next problem, which is how to manage your site. It’s not just going accessing your Web space with an FTP app, such as Fetch or (my favorite) Transmit, and uploading files. And you might do the same with Dreamweaver or WordPress. Beyond that, your Web host will offer an online control panel where you can manage the more arcane aspects of organizing your online presence, such as giving access to other users (or customers), adding domains, and even updating the core apps that are required to run your site. Most offer one-click (or a few click) auto installers for WordPress and other apps too. But all this depends on the kind of hosting package you bought.
For us, we have a dedicated Linux server, meaning that the entire box is available for our use. We can pretty much wipe it dry and install our own operating system, software, the whole nine yards. If you’re a command live maven, you’ll be living large with all the tools you’ll have at your disposal in such a setting.
But Mac users like me prefer the simpler ways. Yes, I can manage a few basic command line directives, and I can copy and paste with the best of them, but I prefer a simple control panel to do the heavy lifting for me.
Such companies as DreamHost, GoDaddy, and 1and1 Internet offer their own customized settings panels. 1and1 Internet delivers a pretty basic, rigid set of controls. DreamHost and GoDaddy tend to be more user-friendly. But most hosts go to third parties to get the control panel software they need.
The two most popular ones are cPanel and Parallels Plesk Panel. Yes, that’s the same Parallels whose Parallels Desktop lets you run Windows and loads of other operating systems on your Mac.
Most hosts don’t go through the time and expense of custom building their own software. More often than not, they’ll put custom branding onto cPanel and Plesk, and be done with it. Even HostGator, one of the fastest growing hosts in the U.S., has settled on cPanel. The same is true for the host that handles our dedicated server, Namecheap.
Now for just managing your site without the backend issues, Plesk might offer the prettier interface. cPanel’s interface is serviceable, but far more powerful. With your own dedicated server, cPanel actually lets you easily update all the key apps you need to run your site, such as Apache server, MySQL (for databases that store content in WordPress, online forums and lots more), and PHP, the scripting language behind all those powerful Web apps.
With its main headquarters located in Houston, cPanel Inc. is a fairly small company, consisting of dozens rather than hundreds of employees. They are also Mac friendly, and offer wonderful support. Parallel, founded in Russia, now has several offices around the world, with global headquarters in Seattle. Their employee roster is over 700 and counting. Getting support also seems more problematic, although most of you will tend to rely on your host to assist in case you get into a jam.
My personal opinion is that cPanel, despite the serviceable rather than attractive interface, is far better at managing your Web site, particularly if you want to get your hands dirty without getting them greasy. DreamHost and GoDaddy also strive to be user-friendly.
In the end, though, choosing the right host comes first, ahead of the online management tools. A poor host will have loads of downtime, meaning that your mission critical site will not be available to your customers. Bad support means that your questions or problems won’t be addressed in a timely fashion.
In that regard, you should go online and search for sites populated by people who hate the host in question, and see what their problems are all about. Also check the Better Business Bureau listings, although, truth to tell, companies that are paid BBB members tend to garner better ratings than those who don’t. Remember, though, that they all get complaints. It’s the nature of the business, but if the vast majority of customers seem happy, give that company a try.
Before you sign up with a Web host, make sure they have a money back guarantee, so you can leave if you’re not satisfied. And also keep backups of your own site content. If you close your hosting account, they are under no obligation to send you a backup. Also, don’t expect recent backups, or any backups, for a $3.99 hosting account, even if they promise them. Keep your own copies. Even online blogging apps such as WordPress offer plugins that will automatic back up your database content and email it directly to you.
See you online.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
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Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
Marketing and Public Relations: Barbara Kaplan
Business Development: Gil James Bavel
Worldwide Licensing: Sharon Jarvis