They say time flies when you’re having fun, and Apple has delivered plenty of enjoyment and, in fact, information, to hundreds of millions of iPod owners over the past decade.
Certainly the iPod seemed a modest exercise at the beginning, a tiny device that stored some 5,000 songs for a “mere” $399. It’s not that digital musical players didn’t exist. There were a number of gadgets of that sort available when the iPod made its humble debut. I know I reviewed some of them for CNET, and my general opinion was that they weren’t so good. It wasn’t just the slow transfer speeds, but the obtuse interfaces. This was not a potential Walkman successor.
As has become the case with Apple, they found out what was wrong with existing gear, and managed to find ways to make it all work seamlessly. Those first iPods used FireWire for speedy file syncing with your Mac. PC support was later added, although Steve Jobs reportedly objected to that idea and had to be persuaded to agree to make the product cross-platform.
At least Jobs was flexible to see where he might be wrong, and history shows that the iPod really pushed Apple onto an incredible growth path, leading them into new directions as a consumer electronics maker. Had the iPod failed, would there be an iPhone, or an iPad? I think not.
Now on this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, we observed the 10th anniversary of Apple’s iconic iPod, with author and commentator Kirk McElhearn. You also learned about the gadget’s humble beginnings, and how its future shapes up.
We also featured a special interview with legendary audio equipment designer Bob Carver, who discussed his history of creating audio equipment for your home, plus how the quest for perfect sound has fared so far in the 21st century. One fascinating tidbit: Years ago, Bob participated in a three-way roundtable about the future of home audio. The other participants? Steve Jobs and the famous science and science fiction author, Isaac Asimov.
Macworld’s Lex Friedman and Gene discussed the best-selling biography, “Steve Jobs,” from author Walter Isaacson. Have all the revelations about Jobs’ mercurial personality made people less apt to admire Apple’s co-founder? We covered lots of questions and possibilities.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present long-time UFO researcher Norio Hayakawa, who has devoted many years towards unearthing the mysteries behind the alleged base at Dulce, New Mexico and Area 51. Is it all about secret weapons, or is there a UFO related element to all this?
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.
There’s an interesting article at Macworld, from my friend Lex Friedman, which focuses on the rapid growth of Mac OS X in the early years, and how, as the frequency of upgrades has slowed, the changes have been less drastic. Lex assumes, perhaps with a reasonable amount of justification, that things will settle down with the iOS before long.
Now when it comes to Mac OS X, consider that, before Lion arrived, it had been four years since Apple released a major OS upgrade. Yes, Snow Leopard came between Leopard and Lion, but there were few feature enhancements. Mac OS 10.6 was meant as an OS upgrade to deliver new system-level capabilities that would improve performance and reliability. Well, at least when app developers made their software compatible.
Indeed, if you didn’t migrate to Snow Leopard, 10.6, you may not have noticed much of a difference, at least until the Mac App Store arrived and gave you an iOS-inspired method to acquire software. Of course, that also became the main destination to upgrading to Lion, so many of you might have been forced to upgrade to Snow Leopard anyway if you craved 10.7. Yes, Apple has a costlier USB stick version, but they really want you to download Lion. And, for now at least, Lion is the only route on the Mac to iCloud.
Now some of the main improvements in Lion, on the surface, appear to have been adapted from the iOS. It’s not as if Apple devised that many major improvements. Other changes were simply extensions of existing concepts. Auto Save, for example, is a feature available in some applications, and courtesy of third-party utilities, for a number of years. Version is basically a subset of Time Machine, allowing you to examine or revert to older versions of documents from within the application.
Going forward, you have to wonder just how many things Apple can change about Mac OS X within the existing environment before they have to consider a wholesale user interface alteration of some sort. There have been suggestions from some commentators that Apple’s goal is to ultimately merge the iOS with Mac OS X, though it’s likely Lion has too many gestures as it is. There are just so many ways you can manipulate your fingers before you begin to feel you need to take lessons as a guitarist or pianist for the digits to become sufficiently flexible.
When it comes to the iOS, Apple has yet to run out of ideas to flesh out a 200-plus new feature wish list on an annual basis. That Apple has been able to accomplish this task without materially changing the basic look and feel is a tribute to smart design, and a sensible development process.
At the same time, you have to wonder just how many features Apple might want to pack into an OS meant to serve the needs of small mobile devices before it becomes too complicated for regular people. This is a constraint that doesn’t seem to bother Microsoft, though. As much as some things may be a tad simpler in Windows, you have to think that all the changes are only making things more complicated. Even with the new tiled veneer in Windows 8, once you get past those ugly widgets, it’s still just plain old Windows. And why does Microsoft continue to believe we really don’t want menu bars?
Now this doesn’t mean the iOS is feature complete, or close to feature complete. As much as Apple finds ways to improve Mail, for example, it only makes the missed features seem more significant. Why, for example, must you be saddled with a single system-wide signature? Why not have a separate signature for each email account, which, to me, more closely mirrors reality? This way, you can have the personal signature and the business signature. Is that so hard to do?
The other email concerns are rules and spam protection. I’m sure many of you wish to funnel messages to a specific folder (or even to a folder in another account). That’s easily done in many email clients, including the desktop version of Mail (the iCloud variant is simplified). The problem arises when your Mac or PC isn’t on, so your supposed “PC free” iOS 5 device won’t filter the incoming email to different folders. That’s something that will require manual labor later on, but why? The same holds true for spam filtering, unless, of course, your email provider does a good job protecting you from junk.
My comments about mail represent a tiny subset of things that can still be done with the iOS. I’m sure you can provide a healthy list of the changes or improvements you’d like to see. It doesn’t appear as if Apple is going to run out of great ideas very soon. On the other hand, I can think of some things that are still lacking in Mac OS X, but don’t get me started.
The other factor that will encourage Apple’s developers to keep improving the two operating systems is competition. Clearly Google isn’t standing still, and Microsoft just recently shipped a reasonable upgrade to Windows Phone 7. Apple doesn’t have an exclusive on all the good ideas. Consider the iOS 5 Notification Center, something that was clearly inspired by the way such messages are displayed in the Android OS.
It’s certainly clear that features are routinely borrowed and adapted across the various operating systems. Consumer Reports, for example, has already listed several examples of how other services inspired iOS 5, although they seem to be going a bit overboard in suggesting that Apple is just copying ideas from other companies.
If OS innovation from Apple’s competitors slows down, however, you would have reason to worry that Apple might follow suit, and that wouldn’t benefit anyone.
In the very, very old days, TV was free. You put up an antenna, fiddled with it as appropriate, and you were able to receive your local stations, assuming there were any. Things got difficult if you lived very far from the nearest station, so some smart people devised a “community antenna” system, setting up a single large antenna tuned to receive stations from the larger cities and retransmit them so you could get decent reception on your local set.
From there came cable systems, which connected households and businesses across an entire city to the receiving center, or head end, and soon you could receive TV almost anywhere. Well, there were places where it wasn’t convenient to lay wire, and I suppose that was one of the inspirations for satellite TV. That way, the only wiring you need is to connect the receiving hardware, or dish, to the sets in your home or apartment complex.
As cable spread across the land, opportunities for new networks arose. Instead of depending on the handful of broadcast stations, the few cable-only networks expanded to hundreds. Some charged you extra to see commercial free and sometimes explicit content. But even the ones providing so-called “free” access requested what are called “carriage fees,” which is more or less a payment from the cable or satellite company for the privilege of carrying that network. That source of income, of course, is in addition to that earned from running ads.
Now the larger entertainment companies, such as the Fox division of News Corp., have a number of networks that are fed to cable and satellite providers. Clearly they are in the business of deriving as much income as they can, and so they routinely request (or demand) higher carriage fees from the cable and satellite providers when the old contract is up.
This negotiation process can sometimes result in the threat to withdraw permission to carry certain channels if the cable or satellite company doesn’t agree to give them a raise. I recall one instance in which part of a World Series game became unavailable to many customers because the network and the provider couldn’t agree on a new contract until the last minute.
That annoying game is playing out all over again this week as negotiations continue between News Corp. and DirecTV. This particular contract involves several networks that include FX, along with 19 regional sports channels. News Corp reportedly wants a 40% increase, and DirecTV is balking over that request. If a deal isn’t consummated by November 1st, DirecTV will stop carrying those stations until they can agree to terms.
Although there has been some confusion over the dispute, partly as a result of some misleading ads from DirecTV’s rival, Dish Network, contract issues of this sort are almost always resolved, although there may be a brief interruption of service. Even if DirecTV pulls those stations, they will still carry local Fox affiliates, Fox News, Fox Business and other Fox content.
Regardless of how this is resolved, the customer loses. The greedy entertainment companies may indeed exact higher fees, but that only means that customers will, in the end, have to pay more to compensate. While I can understand the content providers might feel they deserve higher fees to cover what are no doubt increased production costs, they need to also consider their viewers. These are difficult times, and few people can afford paying even a few dollars more each month for the same service.
In the end, if customers cut back on channels, or give up on cable or satellite entirely, as many of you are dong now, the content providers and delivery services will both suffer. Is that what they really want?
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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