We like to think here in the U.S. that we pay a pretty competitive rate for wireless telephone services, but that’s not necessarily the case. On this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” Kirk McElhearn, talks about how cell phone plans differ in the U.S. and France. Even though Kirk bought an iPhone without a subsidy, and paid the price of a top-of-the-line iPad as a result, overall he got a better deal. His wireless service carries a much lower monthly price, but you still have to get past the hefty upfront payment. He also discusses the impact of the ongoing migration of portions of the iOS to OS X.
Outspoken commentator Peter Cohen, from the “Angry Mac Bastards” radio show and Executive Editor for The Loop, talks about cell phone reception woes, and offers a reality check about the malware situation on the Mac platform. When it comes to malware, Peter clearly feels that the recent problems on the Mac platform are highly overblown. It doesn’t mean Mac users are completely safe, but it does call for a little reality check when it comes to press coverage of the platform’s vulnerability to malware.
ClouldFlare CEO Matthew Prince explains how the company, selected by the Wall Street Journal in 2011 as the Most Innovative Internet Technology company, can help protect your site and make it run faster. We were clued in about CloudFlare some weeks back and gave it a try. After a few days, we found that our sites loaded faster in more places around the world — and traffic is up, meaning more people are paying us a visit.
On this week’s episode of our other radio show, The Paracast: Gene and Chris present Mark Phillips, an award-winning producer who is Executive Producer for “My Ghost Story,” described as one of Biography Channel’s highest rated programs. During this episode, Phillips will tell you how the show originated, and the methodology he and his staff use to investigate and cover stories of paranormal encounters, as told by the eyewitnesses.
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.
The topic of net neutrality is surprisingly divisive. At its core, it means that your ISP shouldn’t be allowed to prioritize traffic on their Internet pipes to favor big companies who pay for special access. All Internet content should be available on an equal basis to subscribers to those services. That was the dream of the creators of the Internet.
Certainly, the benefits of net neutrality are clear. If a big content provider or merchandiser can just pay off the ISP, it means that their sites will load faster. If they load faster, they will get more of your business. Surveys demonstrate that, even if a site is just a few tenths of a second slower, that alone can mean lost business, because impatient customers will simply go elsewhere. This is one of the reasons, by the way, that we’ve signed up with CloudFlare, a content distribution service, so we can take advantage of the power of their worldwide server network and play with the big boys.
While net neutrality seems so simple and logical, it is also a political football. Some opponents of net neutrality want you to believe that it’s some sort of crafty scheme to allow a government, particularly in the U.S., to somehow control the Internet. I won’t attempt to explain how they came to such a silly conclusion, because it just doesn’t make any sense.
In any case, the FCC has published a set of rules that are supposed to cover the ins and outs of net neutrality. However, as with many political actions, the rules have so-called “carve-outs,” which are basically loopholes that allow ISPs to nibble at the edges of net neutrality and engage in behavior that appears to prioritize some kinds of traffic.
When you look at what’s going on, you have to think about those complaints about how Apple and other large corporations manage to reduce their corporate tax burdens by moving offices and excess cash to different states and even different countries, where the laws covering corporate finances are more favorable. But you can’t argue with trying to save money. Every taxpayer, regardless of income, wants to do the very same thing, and the only practical solution would be, I suppose, to just shut the loopholes.
Now when it comes to those ISPs facing net neutrality restrictions, a loophole in the regulations evidently allows them to create a “private” Internet that is not part of the public network. The liberal political watchdog, Media Matters for America, calls the results of this questionable scheme “The Schminternet.”
So Schminternet it is.
But what it means is that an ISP can, for example, stream their own content direct to you via their private network. You can get music or streaming video, but none of that content will count against your ISP’s bandwidth cap. And the bandwidth cap is the weapon that an ISP can employ to prevent “outsiders” from stealing their cable TV customers and streaming programs or even entire channels direct to you, thus depriving the ISP of potential income.
The bandwidth cap is no doubt a key factor in dissuading Apple and other content providers from introducing subscription services to replace cable or satellite TV. So long as your ISP can throttle your broadband Internet service, or dump you temporarily or permanently with extreme prejudice, the competition will be held at bay.
That is, unless the content provider essentially bribes the ISP to get a piece of the Schminternet action. There’s a report, for example, that Comcast will soon start offering their own on-demand private streaming service, Xfinity, through the Microsoft Xbox. This means that users of that gaming console will be able to watch streaming video without having it count against their bandwidth consumption.
Clearly, Microsoft has agreed to send large chunks of money to Comcast to get a piece of the Schminternet action. But that’s surely the tip of the iceberg.
Assuming this net neutrality bypass scheme spreads to other ISPs, and I have little doubt that it will, it would mean that Apple, Google, Amazon, and other heavy-hitters, will have a special gateway to deliver their streaming services. Sure, they will have to pay extra fees to bypass an ISP’s bandwidth caps and get preferred service. Maybe the customer will even benefit to some extent, because it will mean that you will be able to enjoy content from a variety of services and not be confined to cable or satellite.
The ISP may lose your cable business, but they will still earn a reasonable return not just from your monthly broadband payments, but from the content providers who license use of the Schminternet for their own services. As far as the smaller players, particularly startups with limited funding, are concerned, well, that’s just too bad. They will be forced to play on the public Internet and thus force their potential customers to use up their bandwidth allotment.
Now those 200GB or 400GB limits may seem a lot, but if you watch the equivalent of several high definition movies every day by consuming content for the typical eight to 12 hours on your flat panel TV, your bandwidth tank will be emptied real fast.
In spirit, the idea of net neutrality is a good thing. In practice, it appears the FCC has made it possible for broadband carriers to simply skirt he rules, legally, without consequence. And remember that making it difficult or impossible for small companies to compete in cloud or video streaming services will mean less choice for the consumer. It also means that, having fewer competitors, the heavy-hitters in the cloud storage or content delivery business will simply charge you higher prices. After all, they will be paying for special Schminternet access, and the money has to come from somewhere.
Sure, the FCC could easily shut this barn door before the cattle escapes, but political considerations may make that move impossible. They appear to have turned the promise of net neutrality into a paper tiger.
When Mac OS X arrived in 2001, Mac users were quick to complain about missing features. The printing architecture was bare bones, and you couldn’t even play DVDs on your Mac. At least with 10.0, Apple admitted that it was meant for early adopters and power users. It was hardly more than another glorified public beta, and it took a few releases to add the most important missing features.
Now it’s also true that some cherished Mac OS features have never returned to OS X, but Apple has moved elsewhere.
As you know, Apple often makes possibly controversial moves on the Mac platform that the PC industry will eventually follow. When the first MacBook Air arrived, Mac users marveled at the ultra-thin form factor. But many chafed at the lack of a built-in optical drive. How would they install software from physical DVDs, not to mention playing movies? Well, yes, there was an optional external SuperDrive, if you wanted to play a DVD, and I don’t really know how many MacBook Air users actually buy that accessory.
With the growing popularity of solid state drives, and a cheaper price, the MacBook Air has become hot. Real hot. Indeed, PC makers were caught flat-footed, and now have to rely on Intel’s “Ultrabook” reference platform to compete. Certainly, those generic Ultrabook PCs are very similar to the MacBook Air. Built-in optical drives usually aren’t part of the action, and rumors suggest that the next MacBook Pro refresh will include models that also ditch the optical drives.
Apple seems to have a point. More and more people get software online, and play streamed content from iTunes, Netflix, Hulu and other sources. I know that I rarely use the optical drive on my MacBook Pro, although I still rip CDs on my iMac. But I only do it occasionally, and once I import my entire CD collection — and it will happen one of these days — I may never use an optical drive again.
At the same time, Microsoft’s is also helping you feel more comfortable ditching optical drives, but it appears to be the result of the razor-thin margins on PCs these days. You see, the Windows 8 version of Windows Media Player, according to published reports, won’t support DVDs. To get that feature, you’ll have to get a third-party app at extra cost. The money saved from not paying the DVD software licensing fees slightly reduces the cost of building Windows 8, but it also creates an income opportunity for the PC makers. Maybe they’ll sell you email software next if those profits keep falling, even though the standard email standards are open.
Now unbundling software isn’t unique to Microsoft or to Windows 8. Apple has done that already with Adobe Flash and Java. But the owners of these programming standards aren’t charging you extra to run Flash or Java applets in your browser. Java is theoretically free, although there is that controversial licensing issue that’s formed the basis of the civil lawsuit involving Oracle, publishers of Java, and Google. Adobe gives away the Flash players, but charges you for their own apps with which to create Flash content.
Now I suppose Microsoft may have a point in wanting to ditch free DVD playback. At the same time, there are tens of millions of potential Windows 8 customers will feel betrayed the second they try to play a DVD and find it doesn’t work. Will Microsoft simply offer a paid download to resolve the problem? Or refer you to a third-party solution?
More than likely, though, people will just have one more incentive to ditch optical drives.
THE FINAL WORD
The Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible, Inc.
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