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  • Newsletter Issue #617

    September 26th, 2011

    THIS WEEK’S TECH NIGHT OWL RADIO UPDATE

    When I prepare the guest list for The Tech Night Owl LIVE, I look at the tech news of the week, and concentrate on the key issues. I also look at new products, and occasionally have company spokespeople on to talk up a new gadget or service.

    Well, on this week’s episode, we covered a wide variety of topics. They included Microsoft’s plans for Windows 8, the curious decision of Netflix to split streaming and DVD services into two separate companies, the good, bad and ugly aspects of Apple’s OS X Lion, the case of the smoking iMac, Mac speech recognition software, and possible replacements for Intuit’s Quicken for the Mac to manage your personal finances.

    The guest list included: Peter Cohen, of the “Angry Mac Bastards” radio show and Executive Editor for The LoopBob “Dr. Mac” LeVitus, and commentator Kirk McElhearn.

    Now when it comes to Netflix, I’ve actually yet to hear anyone outside of the company actually speak of the changes in a favorable light. First and foremost, rates for those opting for both video streaming and DVDs have gone up approximately 60%. But you don’t have to take both, if you don’t, for example, want physical media. But to complicate matters, Netflix has split the services into two separate companies. Netflix will handle the streaming end, while a new company, Qwikster, will support DVD rentals. Worse, you’ll get a separate entry on your credit card bill for each.

    Granted, streaming and shipping physical media are different from a logistical standpoint, but why should you be forced to go to two sites and handle two queues to manage your content? I just wonder what drugs Netflix’s executives are taking, because they are sadly in need of rehab.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: 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.

    ARE WE PAYING TOO MUCH ATTENTION TO APPLE?

    Over the past week, both the tech and mainstream media have carried a number of reports about a rumored Apple media event, supposedly taking place October 4th, where the next iPhone will be launched. This speculation has been buttressed by still other reports, that Apple employees won’t be allowed to take vacations the following week.

    If true, it would mean that the press event would occur a week ahead of the actual release of the products, to give customers a chance, I suppose, to place online preorders. Certainly too lengthy a wait for iPhone 5 gratification might wreck sales of the current model, so Apple is running a tight schedule.

    Still other rumors suggest that iOS 5, along with the iCloud debut, are set for October 10th, with the actual hardware release coming a few days later. This will give time for Apple’s servers to sustain the high initial demand for the new software update, while creating the usual weekend media splash for the iPhone’s on sale events.

    Understand that we are talking about a smartphone here. Sure, it’s an important product for Apple and for Apple’s customers, but how is it going to change your lives? It doesn’t mean that Apple shouldn’t improve the iPhone or that you don’t need to replace the smartphone you have. More than likely, the iPhone 5, or whatever it’s called, will run noticeably faster than the current model. Perhaps the notorious “death grip” effect, where the signal dips if you hold it the “wrong” way, will be minimized.

    With iOS 5, there will be loads of new features that will enhance the user experience on an iPhone and iPad. Consider the Notification Center, which repairs that awful Push Notification feature for app and system messages, and makes it actually useful. Virtually every popular feature of the iOS is enhanced. As a free update, your iOS device will suddenly become much more useful.

    Compare to an Android OS device, where you can’t even be assured of getting a software upgrade, where feature enhancements are rolled out without a whole lot of fanfare for the lucky ones who can get that upgrade.

    This doesn’t mean there’s nothing new in Android land. In fact, I found a site, Android Central, where they list which smartphones are getting updates and carries reviews of the various products. But it’s so filled with specs and coverage of the minor distinctions from one company’s product to the next that it’s really difficult to see what Google has changed, and it’s impact to customers who do get the updates. In case you’re wondering, Android 2.3 will offer a copy/paste scheme that seems similar to the one in the iOS, “faster, more intuitive text input,” “improved power management,” along with enhanced gaming, rich media, application management, and a new download management feature.

    Now while it’s good to see that Google continues to improve upon the Android platform, it doesn’t seem as if the breadth of features is in any way as extensive as what Apple is adding between iOS 4 and iOS 5. And, as I said, Android device customers are never assured of getting the updates without jumping through hoops that may include jailbreaking.

    It’s also true that the Android upgrades weren’t announced with major media events that received major worldwide coverage. It’s almost as if the gadget is more important than the software that runs it. That’s also true with the ads for Android gear, which are filled with noisy special effects, and little indiction about what makes one gadget better than another, or where Google’s OS might be involved.

    So it comes down to the core question I raised at the start of the article, which is whether Apple is getting too much attention from the media. Maybe it’s because they actually have something interesting to say, and have the marketing muscle to deliver that message. Maybe that’s something Google ought to learn, although certainly nobody is disputing the fact that Android smartphones are good sellers, even if no single model can match the iPhone.

    What makes it worse in the Google space is the fact that it’s not just one manufacturer, but several that are competing not just with Apple, but with each other. More often than not, the ads you see are actually pushing the wireless carrier’s products and services, rather than the handset maker. Maybe if Google learns anything after its acquisition with Motorola is finalized, it’s to deliver a unified, sharply focused message that is compelling enough to attract the media.

    Meantime, we’ll continue to talk about the goings on at Apple, and, right now, whether you should upgrade to the next iPhone on the day it’s released, assuming you can find one in stock.

    REMEMBERING THE ROTARY ENGINE

    In 1970, while unemployed and struggling to keep food on the table, I happened to read an article in an auto magazine about a new type of engine without pistons, known as the Wankel rotary engine.

    Based on an invention he first patented in 1929, German engineer Felix Wankel actually developed working prototypes in the 1950s. In passing, this wasn’t the first rotary engine to be developed, but Wankel’s version actually reached mass production in regular autos, and, for a time, became reasonably popular.

    The promise of the rotary engine was amazingly smooth performance, and loads of power for its size. Indeed, after reading that article, I drove on down to a local dealer (I was living in South Carolina at the time) to take a test drive in the Mazda R100. I had to see this thing for myself, even though I knew that, even if I got a job very soon thereafter, it would take a year or two to get on my feet financially.

    Well, in person the R100 was an undistinguished compact car, in the tradition of a Toyota or a Datsun (which is how Nissan motor vehicles were named in those days). Accommodations were perfectly ordinary for a two-door coupe, but oh that engine! It seemed to have gobs of power, yet it sounded like an electric motor. I was hooked.

    Well, I got that job, at a radio station in the Philadelphia suburbs, but it was a couple of years before the Mazda franchises expanded to the northeast. My turquoise blue Toyota Corona was on its last legs, leaking oil, when I took delivery of yellow four-door Mazda RX-2. While performance was certainly less compelling then even today’s inexpensive compact cars, it was quite good for its time. Indeed, once you revved past first gear, the RX-2 seemed to accelerate like a rocket. While observing the speed limit, I delighted in leaving drivers of much larger cars in the dust at a stop light. OK, I was young and foolish.

    Unfortunately, the RX-2 didn’t acquit itself as a reliable vehicle. Within the first 1,000 miles, I had already had an engine overhaul, in which they replaced the rotor seals because they were leaking oil. After that repair, the car would occasionally leak coolant as well, a problem they never seemed to be able to fix. Yet I persevered, for otherwise the car was fun to drive and reasonably comfortable on the cross-country trips I’d take in those days.

    Well, by 1976, with over 60,000 miles on the odometer, the exhaust began to smoke for a few minutes after a cold start. The mechanics said I needed another engine overhaul, but I opted to keep it running until I was able to afford a new car. This model had a manual transmission, and the clutch’s master cylinder nearly gave out on my trip to the dealer to pick up the Mazda’s replacement, a blue 1976 Buick Skylark. At every traffic light, I had to force the car into gear several times before it would “engage.” Since the dealer gave me a pittance for the trade-in, they really weren’t concerned. Or at least they didn’t complain.

    Well, I thought about that RX-2 when I read the other day that Mazda’s last production rotary in the U.S., the RX-8 sports car, had ceased production. Yes, the reliability issues had been resolved, but not the car’s pathetic gas economy, which ranged in the upper teens with premium fuel if you were lucky.

    I once took a test drive in an RX-8, a slick low-profile sports car with wonderful handling, a reasonably comfortable ride, and great seats. The familiar rotary hum was there as well. Some things never change. Now equipped with rear seats and curious reverse-opening rear doors, you could carry four people in a pinch, but you’d hope your rear passengers were short. It wasn’t a family vehicle, but since it cost roughly the same as a top-of-the-line Toyota Camry or Honda Accord, it would make a terrific second car.

    But with faltering sales, and the inability to pass European Union emission regulations, Mazda pulled the plug. But, rotary fans, don’t despair. According to information at Mazda’s Web site, it appears they are developing a new generation 16x engine, said to offer more power and 30% better fuel economy. So it may well that the rotary will return in yet another guise. So maybe I should start saving.

    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: Sharon Jarvis



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    4 Responses to “Newsletter Issue #617”

    1. dfs says:

      One difficulty with the Wankel engine: except for factory-trained Mazda technicians, it must have been virtually impossible to find a mechanic capable of working on one of those things. Anybody who buys a car with an oddball engine (remember those old two-stroke Saabs?) runs into this problem

    2. gopher says:

      The smartphone debate won’t be solved until someone offers its capabilities to the iPad. That’s my prediction. And then data will have to be unlimited with no caps. As it stands the limited unlimited offer from AT&T was the best we could get. Apple has enough financial clout they could probably get WiMax off the ground when no one else can, and then we’ll finally have true unlimited WiFi at the last mile. The only thing stopping the Smart phone from reaching its pivotal status, is the last mile. Apple needs to solve that. Until then, the cloud will just be a lone storm cloud for all smartphones. I know I won’t buy a smartphone until it is solved, and I’m more likely to add it to my iPad than buy a phone on contract.

    3. PhillyG says:

      Sometimes it seems that Apple gets too much coverage with not enough attention – as in write first, analyze never.

      In the beginning there were reports on press conferences. After a while, see started getting reports on invitations to press conferences. Then we were getting reports on rumors about future press conferences.

      In the beginning there were reports on new products, then reports on new product announcements, then reports on rumors and speculations about new products. I remember when announced products that did not appear were called vaporware, and when rumors that did not pan out were called bogus. Now all rumors are taken as gospel, and when they don’t pan out, new rumors explain away the discrepancy.

      I can understand reporting on new product introductions, or new product announcements even. Reporting on invitations to a press conference seems a little over the line. Reporting on how invitations are late going out for a rumored press conference is {expletive deleted}.

      Let’s see if I’ve got this right? According to the Apple analists, the annual iPod announcement is overdue, the annual iPhone announcement is overdue, the iCloud announcement is due, and iOS 5 is coming soon. A Mac Pro refresh is overdue, and more Thunderbolt gizmos are expected. If that isn’t enough, there is speculation that Apple is going to save Television with who knows what.

      Several years ago, Apple announced it would stop attending Macworld expo, partly because Apple did not want its product development to revolve around a fixed date like the second Tuesday in January. I imagine that Apple is also trying to avoid the “Osbourne effect”. I understand that Apple haters might be trying to generate an Osbourne effect. What is your excuse?

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