As the media, and millions of Apple customers, waited for announcements about the next iPhone and, to a lesser degree, the newest iPods, we focused most of our attention elsewhere on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE. On the front burner was Windows 8, Microsoft’s forthcoming OS upgrade that will combine mobile and desktop systems, which is widely expected to arrive in 2012. Along to discuss what he regards as some of the questionable aspects of Windows 8 was cutting-edge commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, from Roughly Drafted Magazine and AppleInsider. You also heard from Seth Rosenblatt, from CNET, who had a hands-on encounter with an early beta of Windows 8.
As you regular readers no doubt realize, I am skeptical about the reasoning behind Windows 8, not because I don’t expect Microsoft to sell hundreds of millions of copies. That’s a given considering the company’s continuing dominance of the PC market. I’m skeptical because I do not believe Microsoft understands what makes Apple and its iOS gear so successful. They seem to believe you want Windows everywhere, more or less, and that taking interface schemes that have already failed will somehow succeed when transferred to different products. But I’ll get into more details later in this issue.
Also this week, Macworld writer Lex Friedman discussed the curious disappearance of gift card balances from some iTunes accounts, and what might be responsible for these cases of online theft. The sordid details are simple. Some people who add the gift cards to their accounts will, not long thereafter, find the balances zeroed out. Yes, Apple will make good on the loss, but why it’s happening remains an open question, although Lex had some credible suggestions to offer about the possible causes.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present a return appearance from Peter Robbins, a founding member and Advisory Board member of Budd Hopkins’ Intruders Foundation, and author of “Left at East Gate: A First-Hand Account of the Rendlesham Forest UFO Incident, Its Cover-up, and Investigation,” which was co-authored by Larry Warren.
Coming September 25: Gene and Chris present a “Great Debate” on whether there is UFO secrecy with John B. Alexander, Ph.D, author of “UFOs: Myths, Conspiracies, and Realities” and nuclear physicist and UFO authority Stanton T. Friedman. We also ask the questions you posted in our forums.
Now Shipping! The Official Paracast T-Shirt — Now with New Design! 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.
It must be frustrating for Microsoft. Apple gets nearly all the attention these days, even though Windows still dominates the world’s PC desktops by a huge margin. Yes, the share is eroding somewhat, mostly because the Mac is growing faster, but Microsoft still makes loads of money from Windows licenses.
At the same time, Microsoft has failed to spread the joy to other markets. Although the Xbox has done all right in the gaming business, Microsoft has struck out when it comes to tablets and smartphones. These days, Windows Phone 7, though praised for a good-looking user interface, is essentially a non-issue. It’s all about the iOS and Android.
When it comes to search, Bing’s market share has increased, but largely at the expense of Yahoo!, which continues to flail after agreeing to use Microsoft’s search engine. In the wake of the sudden firing of their CEO, Yahoo! is reportedly looking for merger partners in the hopes of staying afloat.
So the pressure is on Microsoft to get Windows 8 right, not to mention devising a workable solution for tablets and mobile phones. It seems to me and other commentators that Microsoft simply looked at what Apple has accomplished by melding some iOS features into OS X Lion, and decided to attempt to go one better.
With Windows 8, you’ll see the same basic look and feel on a tablet and a regular PC, dubbed Metro. If the colorful tiles are familiar to you, it’s because you’ve seen them before in two failed products. If any of you have a Zune around, just turn it on, and have a look, or maybe check out your Windows Phone 7 smartphone. Then again, I wonder how many of my readers have such gear, but if you do, the Metro interface would be quite familiar to you.
So the first question Microsoft needs to answer is how they expect to take a user interface that has failed on two other products, and make it work on their flagship product? I’m not sure I understand the logic behind Windows 8. Surely Microsoft has enough talented interface designers on hand to devise something with a better chance of success. But that’s just me.
This isn’t to say that Metro is bad, although I consider the basic look rather ugly and just too busy for casual users. I’m also concerned about the choice to place white lettering over a color tile, because it reduces visibility. Isn’t that simply Web design 101, although the text will certainly be sharper on a regular computer, right?
Now commentator Daniel Eran Dilger, a frequent guest on my tech radio show, likens Metro to a magazine, with the same flat or two-dimensional look and feel. But aren’t magazines passé these days, what with the growth of online content? So why would Microsoft take yesterday’s look and feel and somehow believe that’s what customers will accept?
Now I realize some of you might criticize me for commenting on something I haven’t used, but I’ve installed the developer beta of Windows 8 under Parallels Desktop 7 for the Mac. Performance is not that snappy since Parallels hasn’t delivered a set of optimized drivers for the new OS, but I’ve seen enough to give me a sense of the damage Microsoft has wrought.
Take the initial setup screen, consisting of white lettering against a deep green background. As I said, it’s not quite as readable as one ought to expect from a casual glance, but I was able to get through the simple setup process, since I used the “Express” option, which merely requested my Windows Live ID. My Hotmail address sufficed. Indeed, only moments later, I got an email in my Hotmail Inbox asking me to confirm that I wanted to add my new “trusted PC” to the account, which I did.
As you’ve probably seen from the screen captures already published, the Start screen is laden with tiles. Confirming my first impression, some of the white lettering was so thin it almost faded into the background. As I said, it doesn’t make sense.
More to the point, I just wonder how the enterprise will adapt to this ill-thought user interface. My impression is that they won’t. They’ll just disable Metro and revert to an interface that looks little different from Windows 7. So why bother?
Now Microsoft’s argument is that Windows 8 will offer performance advantages, particularly when it comes to boot and shut down times. While I couldn’t evaluate performance fairly on a virtual machine, it seemed to boot quickly enough, though it took far longer than the eight seconds Microsoft demonstrated on specially configured tablet computers handed out to the media. At the same time, those computers included powerful Intel i5 processors and 64GB solid state drives, and the latter would surely ensure a quick startup process.
Less certain is how Windows 8 will fare on a true mobile gadget using an ARM processor. Will you get decent battery life and snappy performance? That’s not a given. Even the failed HP TouchPad, with reasonably powerful hardware, had troubles with the WebOS. I suppose we won’t be know for certain until Windows 8 is further along in its development process.
But the real problem for Microsoft is that Metro is just a veneer, not something infused with Windows 8 that somehow makes it better. You will not, for example, be able to run regular Windows apps on an ARM device powered by Windows 8. You’ll only be able to share a new class of Web-based apps on both devices. And, yes, Microsoft will have its own app repository designed in the spirit of Apple’s App Store, complete with the requisite 30% take from software sales.
I really have concerns as to how this smoke and mirrors scheme will catch on with the business customers on whom Microsoft depends. As to consumers: Since they’ve already given the Zune and Windows Phone 7 a pass, what makes Microsoft believe that using a similar interface on Windows 8 will somehow succeed? That’s the larger issue. For now, color me skeptical.
In the movie business, the summer blockbuster season begins in May and ends by Labor Day. During that time, they earn most of their box office revenue and, one hopes, the major portion of their profits. But this year’s tallies are troublesome, as some of the flicks Hollywood hoped would become smash hits ended up being duds.
So while we tolerated new entrants in the “Transformers” and the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, and gave “Harry Potter” a rousing send off, films based on comic book super heroes were a mixed success. Yes, the mighty “Thor” had a pretty decent audience, earning nearly $450 million worldwide. The “X-Men” reboot, “First Class,” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” earned modest profits for their studios. But the public gave thumbs down to a DC comics character, “Green Lantern,” and to a peculiar sci-fi themed western, “Cowboys and Aliens.”
Now the latter arrived with high expectations, sporting an A-list production team that included Steven Spielberg, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, and Roberto Orci. The latter three are famous for various J.J. Abrams TV hits, and Kurtzman and Orci were the scribes for the “Star Trek” reboot. The film’s director, John Favreau, is known for his success with the first two “Iron Man” films. But even stars Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig couldn’t save this curious concept, based on a graphic novel about alien marauders in the old west.
And please don’t get me started about yet another super hero flick from earlier this year, “The Green Hornet,” based on a radio show back in the 1930s and 1940s, which got lost between bad comedy and bad action.
This won’t stop next year’s comic book onslaught, which includes “The Avengers,” sporting a team of Marvel superheroes, including the Hulk, all in one film, and Christopher Nolan’s third entry in the Batman trilogy, “The Dark Knight Rises.”
At the same time, it appears the entertainment industry’s bigwigs have begun to watch their wallets, and they have passed on some projects, including a $250 million dollar remake of “The Lone Ranger,” with Johnny Depp as Tonto. Go figure! Now it’s possible that the masked man will still get the green light with a more sensible budget. But you have to wonder why moviemakers would need so much cash to film a western. Just what sort of state-of-the-art special effects do you need for gun fights and galloping horses? Well, actually, they were going to add some strange creatures and other sci-fi elements, but you’d think that good writing, snappy dialog, great performances, and lots of physical action would be sufficient to carry a film. Or maybe not.
In passing, I do hope the 3D craze will fizzle out. Sure, adding 3D, even to a film originally photographed with standard 2D cameras, lets the local movie theaters charge you much more for a ticket. But that doesn’t necessarily make the film more enjoyable. Unfortunately it may take a while longer for the multidimensional craze, which returned with the success of “Avatar,” to settle down. The consumer electronics makers are busy struggling to sell 3D TVs, but there aren’t as many takers as they hoped, largely because the market for flat panel TVs is saturated, and there are few sources of 3D material. Cable and satellite providers are adding some, and there are a small number 3D Blu-ray discs, if you care to buy a new player on which to run them.
In the past, when box office receipts were down, Hollywood hoped to recoup the losses with DVD (and now Blu-ray) sales. But the great revolution from VHS to DVD, where most people simply bought the same content all over again, is over. Those who have DVD versions of a movie aren’t very likely to buy a Blu-ray equivalent. Sure, it looks better, but not that much better.
This won’t stop the movie industry from wishing and hoping for better box office receipts next year. And don’t forget the Superman reboot, “Man of Steel,” due for 2013, the inevitable sequels for the few comic book movies that did succeed in the last couple of years, and lots of other special-effects laden fare. Sure, the industry will possibly retrench for a while, but it only takes a few blockbuster hits to convince them to take out their checkbooks all over again.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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