• Newsletter Issue #635

    January 30th, 2012


    Many of the things Apple does are immersed in controversy. So when the iBooks Author app was created to let you create interactive textbooks for iBooks 2, there were complaints. How dare Apple deliver a proprietary content creation tool strictly for their own services?

    What some of these people are forgetting is that it’s common to create proprietary tools for a company’s own apps. Certainly the tools used to create Android OS apps are meant for Google’s platform, and Xbox programming tools are meant to build games for Microsoft’s gaming system. So there’s nothing wrong with this practice — unless, of course, it’s done by Apple.

    Besides, it’s not as if the Android OS and Amazon systems are able to support the same sort of textbooks with multimedia content. Maybe that will come, at which time they can build their own tools for publishers to use. And while it might be nice to have a single development tool for all the popular platforms, only the text-oriented formats, such as e-book and PDF, permit that capability. The fancy special effects you see when you read a textbook on an iPad simply wouldn’t translate to other platforms; well, at least not yet, and Apple is going to leverage that advantage for as long as they can.

    But that’s only one of the issues we talked about with our guests on the latest episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, where we were joined by John Martellaro, Senior Editor, Analysis & Reviews for The Mac Observer. In addition to giving you his opinion about Apple’s textbook initiative, he also discussed Apple’s stellar financials.

    Ross Rubin, Executive Director and Principal Analyst, NPD Connected Intelligence for The NPD Group, also talked about Apple’s financial milestones, along with trends in the tech industry, including prospects for 3D TVs.

    We then featured Avram Piltch, Online Editorial Director for Laptop magazine, who gave his views about the recent management shakeup at Research In Motion (RIM), Apple’s amazing success, and reports of unsafe working conditions at the contract factories assembling Apple’s products.

    After the story about alleged unsafe working conditions at those offshore factories appeared in The New York Times, Apple CEO Tim Cook said that Apple would not tolerate such a situation, and would continue to work with their contract manufacturers to improve the working lives of their employees. Time will tell whether that’s just spin control, or will result in positive improvements for the employees at Foxconn and other contract factories.

    On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present an exclusive interview with longtime California MUFON investigators Ruben Uriarte and Noe Torres, who will be discussing their latest book, “Aliens in the Forest: The Cisco Grove UFO Encounter.” This is an amazing story about a near-abduction episode that will include actual audio clips of eyewitness interviews.

    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 huge selection of additional special custom-imprinted merchandise for fans of our show, along with a redesigned storefront.


    Industry analysts are without doubt engulfed in dizziness after looking at Apple’s stellar financials this past week. How can that company possibly maintain such a level of growth year after year after year? When will everyone who is interested own an Apple product, and only look to replace the ones they have?

    Consider the iPhone. According to AT&T, some 80% of their smartphone activations this past quarter consisted of one of the three iPhone models they offer. Verizon Wireless managed more than 50%, but AT&T’s big advantage in this game is the fact that they still offer the iPhone 3GS free with a two-year contract? How do you beat free?

    Sure, that aging iPhone will probably not survive in the lineup when the next iOS release is out, and the free phone will probably be 2010’s iPhone 4, but that’s nothing to apologize for. It’s still a terrific product, even if you are concerned over the long-forgotten remnants of Antennagate. Or does anyone even remember what that was?

    With the iPhone 4s, the redesigned antenna system is clearly a hit. Even Consumer Reports couldn’t find reason to complain. But CR, having a sense about design and usability that’s no better than Microsoft’s, prefers to tout smartphones with larger screens, or 3D. They are tone-deaf to the possibility that a larger phone may be less convenient to hold in one hand — unless professional basketball is your line of work — and forget about comfortably fitting it inside your pant’s pocket; well, unless you moonlight as a clown.

    However, the customers didn’t pay attention to CR when they bought iPhones in larger and larger quantities. But you still have to wonder when sales will level off. How can Apple possibly record increases of over 100% year-over-year before every person on the planet has an iPhone?

    In the real world, sales will gradually level off after a few years, while Apple seeks a successor to the smartphone, or some other company invents a better handheld communications and computing device.

    When it comes to the iPad, the market is young, and, other than the Amazon Kindle Fire, there appear to be few obstacles to Apple’s amazing success. More and more people are considering the iPad as their only portable computing device, and iBooks 2 is likely going to help educators consider a similar solution. That, in part, assumes that textbook prices can be kept really low, with publishers banking on volume and the savings from not having to print expensive books to earn profits.

    The potential obstacle to the iPad’s immediate success as an educational tool is the fact that many school systems just do not have enough spare cash on hand to buy thousands of them every year. However, if enough money is conserved from not having to buy textbooks, I suppose buying boxes and boxes of iPads for students might not seem so expensive. College students will just buy their own.

    A larger question is how other companies will possibly compete. Certainly Apple’s iBooks Author app locks in individuals and publishers to one platform when creating textbooks. It’s not as if Android, Windows Phone, and even beleaguered RIM, are offering special ecosystems for textbooks. I suppose they will try, or maybe create a method to make interactive textbooks that will be readable on all the major platforms.

    When it comes to the prospects for the Amazon Kindle Fire, if there is a 10-inch version, or perhaps one with more features, such as cameras and mics, maybe more people will buy them instead of an iPad. But selling those things at $299 or $349 is going to be a heavy lift for Amazon even if profits are non-existent. If Apple continues to sell the iPad 2 at $399 when the iPad 3 arrives, the possible openings for competitors will be shut tight.

    And I remain highly skeptical of the possibility that Apple will deliver a 7-inch iPad. Had sales not been so compelling in the last quarter, I might have considered the possibility. But not now.

    When it comes to Macs, as PC sales go down, Apple can report 20% sales increases for many years and still not make a huge dent in the Windows market. If, as is expected, tablets ultimately control the PC universe outside of a small number of creative people who need a real personal computer, the Mac may still remain a successful niche product.

    Of course, few know what products got the green light from Steve Jobs before his passing. There are still expectations about an integrated TV set, but there may be other products not yet making it into the rumor mills that will debut in some near-future event. I won’t hazard guesses as to what those products might be — at least not yet.


    In writing about the resurgence of vinyl for music lovers last week, I painted a simple picture of hooking up a turntable to your existing playback system. Beyond the turntable, the tone arm, and the cartridge (often sold as a single bundle), all you’d need was some sort of cleaning substance to keep your records clean.

    But when you visit the sometimes curious world of high-end audio, you soon discover that you need a lot more gear to ensure you are getting the ultimate sound reproduction from your system. Every single component in the signal path — and sometimes out of the signal path — can result in an audible difference clearly audible to so-called “Golden Ears.”

    Consider the power supply. Now all electronics have a power supply. Certainly poor design can result in the inability to handle loud musical passages with an amplifier or receiver, resulting in audible degradation of the sound. It can also mean early failure. This is a valid consideration when buying electronics for your system.

    But there are also companies who are apparently making a killing selling power conditioners. Much more than souped up power strips, you can pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for these gadgets, which promise to clean up the power reaching your equipment and thus materially alter the sound. I’m serious. Some of the reviews for these curious gadgets talk of the superior soundstage and the authenticity of the musical presentation with your electronics plugged in to these questionable components.

    I wouldn’t hesitate to guess what scientific principles apply to such gear, and how “dirty” AC power is somehow killing your listening experience. But some of the high-end audio writers will simply insist that we haven’t discovered why it happens, so just listen and you’ll soon experience a musical epiphany.

    Another “essential” component is the separate D/A converter, a device all digital audio gear contains that translates the digital stream to analog audio so you can hear it on your speaker system. A luxury music system will sometimes include a CD, DVD or Blu-ray component that separates the transport from the electronics. Somehow having these as separate components in different boxes makes a meaningful difference in the way they reproduce the audio and the video. So forget about that $75 Blu-ray player. It’s little more than junk in the high-end audio universe. Of course, when digital downloads fully supplant CDs and DVDs in the not-too-distant-future, will it really matter?

    But wait, I’ve only gotten started. Don’t forget the cables.

    Yes, those wires that you plug in between all that exotic gear can have a significant impact on your listening experience, at least so they say. Audio cables come in all price ranges, from a few dollars at your local Wal-Mart or Radio Shack, to thousands of dollars for a three-foot length of the stuff. The manufactures of those fancy cables claim to have made all sorts of magical improvements that you will readily hear on a decent sound system.

    The grandfather of the high-end cable business is no doubt Monster Cable, founded in 1978 by engineer Noel Lee. In those days, the claims that Monster’s audio cables delivered significant — or even audible — improvements to your sound system were highly disputed. There’s even a report, possibly an urban legend, that Lee was unable to hear any audible differences between his company’s cables and the cheap kind during a double-blind listening test.

    This controversy is clearly spelled out in this short entry from the Wikipedia entry on Monster Cable:

    Monster Cable and similar “boutique” cables are a substantial source of revenue for retailers of electronics such as DVD players and TVs. While the profit margins of DVD players and TVs may be low, the profit margins of Monster Cables and similar products provide supplemental revenue for these retailers. Employees of such retailers are trained to market and bundle Monster Cable and similar products so as to increase profitability.

    Nevertheless, various reviews have reported that listeners and viewers are unable to tell a difference between substantially higher-priced Monster cables and inexpensive cables. In addition, some opinions differ as to whether cable quality makes a difference for short runs of digital cables, such as using HDMI cables to connect a set-top box to one’s television. In one experiment, audiophile listeners could not distinguish between short Monster cables and ordinary coat hangers. Another reviewer concluded that “16-gauge lamp cord and Monster [speaker] cable are indistinguishable from each other with music.”

    I’m not about to say that none of these audio accessories actually work. At the same time, however, whenever I’ve posed the possibility of participating in controlled listening tests to someone who claims to hear such differences, they will usually protest, or just run away.

    This isn’t to say that you should just buy cheap gear and be happy with it. But a little skepticism never hurts, and, if you do have enough money to acquire a state-of-the-art audio or home theater system, you’d be best advised to consider gear that really makes a difference in what you see or hear. And take the money you save from not buying exotic cables and other fanciful accessories and invest it in fleshing out your music and/or movie libraries.


    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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